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Melisandre, faith and witchcraft on Game of Thrones

Contributed by
Apr 17, 2019

Tempting prophecies, sacrificial ceremonies, blood magic, enchanted jewelry, and demon shadow babies are all tools in Melisandre’s (Carice van Houten) Game of Thrones arsenal. Since her Season 2 introduction, the Red Woman has impacted events on a large scale — including her role in dispatching various contenders for the Iron Throne, as well as resurrecting the murdered Jon Snow (Kit Harington). No other person has wielded their words and power quite as effectively, other than maybe Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Only one of them still stands.

The events discussed in this piece are focused on the HBO television series, not the George R.R. Martin books.    

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Credit: HBO 

A brief encounter with Arya (Maise Williams) in Season 3 sees the young Stark accuse Melisandre of being a witch. This is not a term of endearment, as Arya is concerned Melisandre is going to hurt her friend (she's not wrong). Both fairy tales and the real world have positioned witchcraft as something to be feared, and Westeros is no different. Melisandre is more likely to go by a title referencing her dedication to the Lord of Light. Being called a Red Priestess emphasizes the religious aspect; however, her use of magic, as well as other witch-like tropes, underscores why Arya jumps to the witch conclusion.

Game of Thrones subverts typical witchy behavior by having the so-called witch burning people at the stake, but it also leans into other fairy tale archetypes. Melisandre’s beliefs are at odds with the dominant religion of Westeros — the Faith of the Seven — and worshipping R’hllor, the Lord of Light, outside of the continent of Essos is rare. There is also a North/South divide in the Seven Kingdoms, with the South worshipping the New Gods and the North looking to the Old. Worship is incredibly personal, even if it is often a shared experience, as belief levels can vary from those who loosely practice to zealots. It can also be wielded like a weapon, whether it is to gain power or through blind faith. Heinous actions are backed by religious excuses in Game of Thrones; doing something for the “right” reasons doesn’t make it just.    

Fire is an important aspect of the Lord of Light, which conjures up imagery of witch persecution, as well as spells performed. The words “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” are, of course, never uttered, but the links to Shakespeare’s Macbeth are hard to ignore. Melisandre is part-Three Witches, part-Lady Macbeth, as she not only shares the vision that starts Stannis’ (Stephen Dillane) doomed Iron Throne campaign, but she also ensures that he follows through. Many of Stannis’ enemies and followers are sacrificed in order to fulfill the “Prince That Was Promised” prophecy, including close advisors, his brother, and his young daughter.

When Melisandre is introduced on the Dragonstone beach in Season 2, she burns statues representing the Faith of the Seven; in this ceremony, she is essentially spinning a “winter is coming” remix. The message is the same, but this version knows how to work up a crowd with an impressive visual show and a catchy forboding phrase that is easy to repeat on mass — “the night is dark and full of terrors” is both poetic and fear-inducing.

Stannis is committed to both Melisandre and the Lord of Light; when a prophecy backs up a claim to the throne, it is going to increase the lengths a man will go in order to make this come true. It also puts Melisandre's life in danger, as there are those who want to protect their king from her influence.

Melisandre somehow avoids death with the help of an enchanted ruby necklace. Style rules are redefined with her literal use of power jewelry. For a page directly out of the witch trope beauty playbook, Melisandre also uses this particular accessory as a way to mask her true image. The quest for eternal youth is a witch tale as old as time; Melisandre appears as a seductive woman, but when she removes her necklace she is revealed to be a “hag” with sagging body parts, thinning hair and an old crone face. A life-saving piece of hardware doubles as an elixir of youth.  

Melisandre uses her sexuality to gain power, including getting pregnant with a shadow demon in order to kill Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony). When Stannis attempts to strangle Melisandre after the defeat at Battle of the Blackwater, she reminds him of the shadow demon, reinforcing the notion that his betrayal will pay off in the end. If you tell someone enough they are destined to be king, they will probably do anything you say, particularly if you have the goods to back it up.

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Credit: HBO

Game of Thrones is awash with family members killing each other for a variety of reasons from revenge to a lust for power. Fratricide is one thing, but filicide is an extreme most would never consider. In her time with Stannis, Melisandre has burned a lot of people at the stake, and she has also invoked the Lord of Light to save someone or insist on their presence. Stannis’ daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) fell into the latter camp in Season 4, but things took a turn for the incredibly dark the following season. After Stannis’ campaign against the Boltons was thwarted by bad weather, he was told to deliver the greatest sacrifice to the Lord of Light: his daughter. At first, he resisted, but after a loss of supplies and men, the Red Woman’s whispers were taken on board.

The murder of Shireen is up there as one of the most disturbing and devastating portrayed on Game of Thrones. Instead of leading Stannis to victory, half his men deserted, his wife killed herself and Stannis was killed by Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) — who was avenging Renly, the king she had sworn to protect.

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Credit: HBO

Melisandre is quick to find a potential new “Prince That Was Promised” champion in the form of Jon Snow, but his death at the hands of the Night’s Watch quickly put an end to this vision. A crisis of faith followed, which isn’t all that surprising considering how much blood she has on her hands.

Unlike Lady Macbeth, Melisandre does not have an “out, damn spot” moment. Instead, after the Jon Snow resurrection actually works (much to her surprise), the prophecy seems even more real than before. Melisandre wouldn’t be as old as she is without knowing what information to reveal and what to keep close to her chest, so while she notes she will no longer be using magic to meddle, she refrains from mentioning the child burning ceremony she hosted. But unlike her true face, there is no hiding what happened after the Battle of the Basterds. Davos (Liam Cunningham) discovers the truth, resulting in Jon banishing her from the North.

But this isn’t the end for Melisandre’s meddling. She gets in on the Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) hook-up when she ventures back to Dragonstone. Here she once again works her destiny whisperings, making sure Daenerys knows the new King in the North has significant value. Did she foresee the incest or just their collective power? Melisandre has been rejected by those in Westeros (for good reason), but she claims she is dedicated to this battle against the White Walkers. Nevertheless, this doesn’t excuse the truly heinous acts committed in the name of the greater good. There are some things you can’t undo.

In the brief Season 3 conversation with Arya, Melisandre did foresee later events that would befall her, “I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me — brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you’ll shut forever.” She also predicted their paths would cross again, which hasn’t happened yet, but there is still time. Arya’s kill list did at one time feature the Red Woman, but she has since been removed. Will Arya change her mind if/when she sees her again?   

It is unclear what role Melisandre will have in the Great War in Season 8, but she did tell Varys (Conleth Hill) she will travel to Westeros one last time to die. As this is the final season that seems like an easy prediction to make, but Melisandre hasn’t got the best track record when it comes to reading those visions; maybe she will live to tell the tale.

Faith is an interpretation. In the later seasons, mistakes have humbled Melisandre, she is no longer willing to stick her neck out (or the necks of others) for one person. She has wavered in relying on fiery visions after suffering a crisis of confidence, but she has persisted. The combination of magic and belief has made her a formidable force, it is hard to deny the incredible impact she has had on the players left standing and the many fallen. Stannis threw leeches into the fire saying the names of usurpers Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) and Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). They all met their end at the hands of others but did this spell cause their demise? The thought of this being explained away as a coincidence, particularly after everything else Melisandre has achieved since her first Dragonstone beach appearance, is unfathomable. 

Despite being banished, it would be foolish to discount Melisandre and her role in the coming fight on Game of Thrones. The night may be dark and full of terror, but she has the Lord of Light on her side. 

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