Assassination plots, political intrigue, and strange dark magic jump out as my favorite elements of A Song of Ice and Fire. They combine to make a story that is fantasy, horror, political thriller, and mystery at all rolled into one. This potent mix lives at the heart of Braavos and the mysterious House of Black and White. And like every good fantasy-horror-thriller-mystery, the deeper you go, the weirder it gets.
So, I’ll start my investigation with a simple question, what in the holy heck is going on in the deep levels of House of Black and White?
Seriously, what strange sorcery allows a cult of death god worshipping assassins to preserve THOUSANDS OF FACES underground and then wear them like skins? It’s so creepy I have to laugh when describing it out loud or I scare myself.
I began with my own suspicions. There is a ton of common symbolism between Arya’s chapters with the Faceless Men and Bran’s with Bloodraven. For an amazing analysis those similarities as symbolism, check out In Grove of Ash from Lucifer Means Lightbringer. But I wondered, is it only symbolism? Or are the Faceless Men using some kind of greenseer or Children of the Forest or other blood magic to create and preserve their skins?
A Stupid Statute, A Giant Clue
Arya’s arrival in Braavos offers a great introduction to not only the geography and culture of the islands, but also to the magical mysteries at the heart of the city. We will explore the Arsenal of Braavos, the prominent Temple of the Moonsingers, and the city’s network of canals later in various parts of this essay series, because they deserve a separate, in-depth analysis. For now, I want to begin with the Titan of Braavos. Or, as Arya calls it, “a stupid statute.”
The Titan is carved directly from stony ridges surrounding Braavos. According to the World Book, the city of Braavos is hidden “behind a wall of pine-clad hills and seastones.” Check out Arya’s description of that seastone wall and the Titan of Braavos:
A line of stony ridges rose sudden from the sea, their steep slopes covered with solider pines and black spruce. But dead ahead the sea had broken through, and there above the open water the Titan towered, with eyesblazing and his long green hair blowing in the wind.
His legs bestrode the gap, one foot planted on each mountain, his shoulders looming tall above the jagged crests…His legs were carved of solid stone, the same black granite as the sea monts on which he stood.
(Arya I, A Feast for Crows).
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Titan of Braavos is carved from seastone, just like the Seastone chair of the Ironborn. Martin does not use Seastone as a generic descriptive term – in the main text, it is only used in reference to the Seastone chair.
And for what its worth, black granite is also a special, non-generic term. The only other reference to black granite is when Jon scales the Frostfangs with Qhorin Halfhand. There, Jon sees “a massive shoulder of black granite” and contrasts the rock’s shadow to the bright moonlight, observing “its shadow was so black that it felt like stepping into a cave.” Arya also observes the shadow cast by the granite. After she passes under the Titan’s “great stone thighs…the shadow lifted.” But, seastone does a lot more than cast shadows and obviously, non-magic stones cast shadows too.
Seastone is a kind of oily black stone or bloodstone, which has all sorts of fun and exciting dark magical properties. For example, Asshai is supposedly made of bloodstone, which is said to drink in the light. Also, the World Book gives us the darkly Lovecraftian tale of the Bloodstone Emperor who worshipped a black stone that fell from the sky, practiced dark arts, and feasted on human flesh. If he sounds like your type of guy, definitely check out LML’s Bloodstone Compendium.
But, don’t take it from me that some kind of human sacrifice is going down in Braavos. Take it from the most reliable source of magical lore this side of Asshai, Old Nan. Not once, but twice, upon her arrival to Braavos Arya remembers Old Nan telling her, “The Braavosi feed [the Titan] on the juicy pink flesh of little high born girls.”
To me, the Titan is a giant clue that Braavos is connected with some kind of blood magic. The guardian of Braavos hides the city in his shadow and his legs are likely carved from magic rock. And I promise, this is only the beginning of the mysterious shadows and fogs surrounding Braavos.
A Grey Girl in a Grey Stone City
On her way through the lagoon to the House of Black and White, Arya – hoping to find a Godswood in Braavosi – observes:
They have no trees…Braavos is all stone, a grey city in a green sea.
A stone, grey city without trees sounds an awful lot like a tomb—a city of death, and indeed death, murder, and vengeance are central to Arya’s purpose there. We have a grey city of death, protected by a bloodstone avatar and surrounded by a green see. As we will explore throughout this essay, Braavos is full of both death and underworld symbolism as well as symbolic references to greensight or opening your third eye. I will argue that green sea surrounding Braavos is not only a symbol of magic, but also a clue that Braavos is close to the underworld and tapped into magic.
With this in mind, I want to consider one of George’s more direct allusions to H.P. Lovecraft. The Bloodstone Emperor figure we discussed above is a direct reference to Lovecraft’s Church of Starry Wisdom. (Big shout out here to the “The Great Empire of the Dawn” episode from History of Westeros collaborating with LML’s for making this connection). In Lovecraft, the Church of Starry Wisdom performed human sacrifices over something called the “Shining Trapezohedron” which, to simplify, was the black stone the cult worshiped. In exchange for blood, they received visions of the future and arcane knowledge. This concept is completely consistent with the world George RR Martin has built. Just think about the visions induced by Shade of the Evening, how blood is necessary to light a glass candle, or how Jojen-paste enhances Bran’s magical abilities. These are all instances of blood exchanged for visions, knowledge, or power.
So, is it possible that that the Faceless Men are doing something similar in the House of Black and White? Are they ritually sacrificing people in exchange for visions of the future? Visions that could give them the ability to manipulate events all over the world?
Well, I certainly think so, but if you think this sounds a lot like ancient aliens level tin-foil right now, I got you. To put it more mildly, I want to argue that the presence of some kind blood sacrifice or bloodstone related magic is at the heart of Braavos and the Faceless Men.
I will be marshaling as much evidence as I can throughout this essay series—and some clues will be better than others. But once I combine the historical record with an analysis of the magical artifacts in Braavos, and finally show how my theory is consistent the role of Faceless Men and Arya play in the overall story, I hope to make a plausible case that the Faceless Men—in partnership with Iron Bank and the people of Braavos—are using magical artifacts and blood sacrifice to make faces, complete certain assassinations, and also to assert political power.
I am not arguing that the Faceless Men are greenseers. I am not arguing the Faceless Men are descended from Azor Ahai or the Bloodstone Emperor. Instead, I believe they are using magic similarly to someone like Mirri Maz Dur—they have collected a variety magical artifacts and knowledge of spells. I also believe, that similarly to the Wall or to the Hollow Hill in the Riverlands, both Braavos itself and the underground tunnel cave network under the House of Black and White are places with special magical properties.
I am going to approach my investigation into the magic of the Faceless Men in three parts. First, I will examine Braavosi history to lay the groundwork for my analysis and show how magic and blood sacrifice are consistent with what we know about the Faceless Men and the Founding of Braavos. I will also suggest that magic helps explain some of the larger inconsistencies in the historical narrative.
Second, I will build the case for Braavos as a magic location and investigate the different kinds of magic used in House of Black and White. To do this, we will examine the signs of greenseer magic and as well as what we know about blood magic generally.
Third, we will use what we learn in the first two sections to evaluate popular theories about the Faceless Men and Arya’s role in the overall story.
The Method to My Madness
Below is an overview of my methodology and goals. Lots of folks who are much smarter and better versed in the lore of ASOIAF have analyzed Martin’s use of symbolism. My main goal here is explore the signs and artifacts of magic.
Broadly, GRRM’s magic system is broadly tied to elements and to blood. But there are also magical artifacts and locations throughout the story. So, although certain types of magic are tied to hereditary bloodlines—dragon bonding and skinchanging, for example—magic also manifests itself in artifacts and locations that are not definitively tied to the straightforward “bloodline” sense of blood.
- Artifacts are often related to elements, think of obsidian as frozen fire. Artifacts are also tied to blood sacrifice, think of lighting an obsidian glass candles with blood. Combining these two idea evokes: Blood and Fire.
- Magic locations are literally close to or embedded in the earth. Think of the caves and hollow hills of the children of the forests. Magic locations can also be directly tied to the elements. Consider the ice magic in the Wall and also how Melisandre believes her magic is stronger there because the wall is a “hinge of the world”.
Because magic is not a real thing on Earth, analyzing the signs or artifacts of magic will naturally going to involve some of analysis of symbols. Take blood for example —blood can be symbolic of lifeforce or it can be symbolic of heat and fire. And when we get “red tides” or “black pools” or “showers” of blood, blood can be symbolic of a well, cleansing, or the sea.
But sometimes, these symbols are also acting as signs or clues about magic. Sometimes blood is literally a blood sacrifice. But how do we understand how the magic of blood sacrifice works? George is not going to give us a scientific style answer. Instead, he is going use a set of metaphors, imagery, and symbols to tie magic to natural elements. And then, if we are lucky, a character may confirm that we are right by describing how certain magic works in world.
The rustles and whispering of the weirwoods are perfect example – sometimes a whisper is just descriptive language, sometimes it is symbolic of the dead talking, and other times it is sign that the dead actually are talking. Bloodraven tells Bran as much—a greenseer talking through a tree sounds like a whisper on the wind or a rustling of leaves. And then, if we look closely, George will give us an example of someone using that specific magic. For example, when Theon hears Bran through the Winterfell heart tree.
So, we are looking for:
- physical clues or artifacts (the weirwood as a sacred location),
- tied to natural elements (the whispering of wind, the rustling of leaves),
- tied to an explanation of magic in text (Bloodraven chatting with Bran) and a demonstration of that magic being used (Theon hearing Bran).
Our conclusion should also fit with the related themes, motifs, and symbols in the story (broadly, the Starks’ connection with weirwoods).
If we can find all or most of these things and then tie them in with face changing and other kinds of magic at the House of Black and White, we should be able to develop a reasonable guess about what kind of magic is foot and draw some creepy, fun conclusions.