Dark Sweet Secrets: Unmasking the Magic of the Faceless Men

Featured Image: The House of Black and White by Sebastian Kowoll 

The House of Black and White is an embarrassment of magical riches. Let’s take a quick inventory as we embark on imaginary tour that feels a bit like an internet RPG circa 1998. If you will, please keep your hands inside the litter and pay close attention that any item that appears like it could be a magical artifact.

Level One

First, you enter through an enchanted weirwood and ebony door.House_of_Black_and_White

As you enter, you’re greeted by inviting, comforting scents. You notice that they waft from tallow candles with flickering with red flames.

The candles surround a still black pool. As you silently observe the scene, you notice that solemn people surround the pool, with their knees bent in prayer. Some scoop the water from the pool into a black cup, and after they drink from it they appear to wander off and die.

Some of the dying, praying people stumble into alcoves where they lay down on dreaming couches which, you’re told, give them pleasant dreams as they drift into eternal slumber.

Level Two 

Braavos_House_of_Black_and_White_5x06_(2)Congratulations. You’ve been promoted to acolyte!

You spend most of your days washing dead bodies and on the more interesting ones, you deliver the bodies to the sanctum that lies deep under the city, past twisting tunnel full of bones and darkness. When arrive, you are greeted by never-ending walls of disembodied faces, watching you.

 

Pretty creepy tour, if you ask me. One by one, we are going to explore all these artifacts, as well as the deeper mysteries of the sanctum, all the while using what we learn to ask some hard questions.

Let’s recall my basic argument all the way back from Part 1—the Faceless Men are collectors of magic. The major sources of magic in ASOIAF are Children of the Forest’s Green Magic and Valyrian era fire and blood magic. Below we will be looking for clues that connect what we find in the House of Black and White to these kinds magic and to help potentially explain how the magic works. I am going to pose a lot of questions as food for thought where I feel there are no clear answers and also draw conclusions where warranted. We are steeped deep in magical theory at this point, so my goal is for us to think creatively together and work through what is plausible, possible, and likely.

The Hall of Faces: Our Spells are Sharp

Arya’s introduction to the Hall of Faces is one of my favorite horror passages in all of A Song of Ice and Fire.

A thousand faces were gazing down on her.

Masks, she told herself, its only masks, but even as she thought the thought, she knew it wasn’t so. They were skins.

The empty eyeholes of the skins upon the walls seemed to follow her. For a moment, she could almost see their lips moving, whispering dark sweet secrets to one another in words too faint to hear.

The Blind Girl, A Dance With Dragons 

Not only are whispering skins are extraordinarily creepy, I love this passage because it is so uncertain to both Arya and the reader what is going on. As we talked about earlier in the essay series, dead heads whispering secrets is a common theme throughout the novels even when there is nothing magical a foot. Here, while I think Arya is right that faces are more like actual skins preserved somehow, rather than carved masks, it seems unlikely that the skins are actually conscious and talking to each other. But, can you blame a girl for having a little imagination? A girl is Arya Stark, the skinchanger, afterall.

In this part, we are going examine clues from the Kindly Man and Melisandre about how the magic of the faces works and then use those clues as our template for a close reading of the face-changing scene itself, and finally review the evidence to make an educated guess about how the Faceless Men save faces—actually. A lot of what I will be doing is putting forth a variety of specific ideas about how certain magical artifacts may work and then pointing out what conclusions we can draw the most strongly.

(1) Deeper than Shadow, More Solid than Bones

GRRM goes out of his way to tell us what faceless man magic is not. The Kindly Man tells Arya explicitly here:

Mummers change their faces with artifice and sorcerers use glamors, weaving light and shadow and desire to make illusions that trick the eye. These arts you shall learn, but what we do here goes deeper. Wise men can see through artifice, and glamors dissolve before sharp eyes, but the face you are about to don will be as true and solid as the face you were born with. Keep your eyes closed…Stay still.

The Blind Girl, A Dance With Dragons

Now here is how Melisandre describes a strong glamor:

“The bones help…The bones remember. The strongest glamors are built of such things. A dead man’s boots, a hank of hair, a bag of fingerbones. With whispered words and prayer, a man’s shadow can be drawn forth from such and draped about another like a cloak. The wearer’s essence does not change, only his seeming.”

Melisandre, A Dance with Dragons

These passages give us a surprising amount of information about how supposedly different magics work. It is not by mistake that these chapters appear in the same book—by the time we have reached the close of ADWD, George is deliberately drawing connections between different kinds of magic and helping signal the importance of magic to the final act of the story. Let’s draw a couple conclusions.

First, Glamors Weave Light & Shadow.

Both Melisandre and the Kindly Man describe glamors as weaving light and shadow. Remember that Bloodstone and seastone can “drink the light,” a property that might be pretty darn exciting to someone looking to cast a strong glamor.

Second, the Strongest Glamors are built of bones.

Like the North and the trees, the Bones Remember. Parts of people or things they owned are vessels for their spirit and seeming. Recall, this is key to Melisandre’s glamor with Rattleshirt.

Third, the Faces are True and Solid and Very Expensive.

I don’t think the book leaves much room to doubt that Arya is physically donning another person’s face when she becomes the Ugly Little Girl. As far we know, this particular magic is unique to the Faceless Men. We are about to explore the “face donning” scene in more depth, but let’s set the last elements of the stage.

We know all magic has a cost. Melisandre’s ruby burns her when Rattleshirt burns Melisandre flamesin her fire and GRRM takes care to have her mention “how much it cost her.” If the magic the Faceless Men weave here goes deeper than glamors and gives Arya a new face, “as true and solid” the one she was born with, face-swapping is some damn costly magic.

And it is the real deal. Just like Melisandre, I think the Faceless Men rely on glamors and artifice when they can, but they also rely on real sources of magical power.

(2) A Close Reading of Face Swapping

What follows is a close reading and analysis of Arya’s face-swapping scene. As we read, it becomes apparent that wearing a false face requires a blood and soul sacrifice and donning a false face awakens the memories of the dead. If you have your copy of Dance, now would be great time to grab it, turn to the Ugly Little Girl Chapter, and read along.

First, a line about a price.

“This will hurt…but pain is the price of power.”

So, this price idea is somewhat self-explanatory and I’ve just mentioned it, however, the message is repeated often throughout the House of the Black and White. For example, the man with bleeding eyes (side note: non-subtle weirwood symbolism) —one of the Faceless Men who sits on the order’s council—has this memorable line for Arya,

“You will be the very goddess of humility, I am sure. But can you pay the price?”

Also, although pain is one of the prices of power, it is likely not the only one. Here, the relevant price is more likely losing your own identify. Recall how often the Faceless Men tell Arya that she must become no one. After we read the full passage, we will return to analyze this price.

But first, a mythological digression. In ancient Greece, there was a goddess of shame and humility named Aidos. She frequently traveled with Nemesis, the daughter of the night and goddess of retribution for evil deeds and dispenser of dues. Nemesis, the mythological other half of Aidos, has a lot in common with the vengeful Arya and her list of evil doers—something we will discuss in an upcoming essay analyzing Arya. For now, consider the tension between humility and vengeance, and ask yourself if Arya ever thinks through the cost of the magic she accepts. Hint: I doubt it.

Second, A cut and curtain of blood

This next part is packed so let’s read it through and then take it line by line.

Still as stone. She sat unmoving. The cut was quick, the blade sharp. By rights, the metal should have felt cold against her flesh, but it felt warm instead. She could feel the blood washing down her face, a rippling red curtain, falling across her brow and cheeks and chin, and she understood why the priest had made her close her eyes. When it reached her lips, the taste was salt and copper. She licked at it and shivered.

Recall that still as stone is one of Arya’s mantras in the Temple. The Kindly man first tells her “you must stand as still as if you had been carved of stone.” She repeats “still as stone” and “I am carved of stone” to herself when playing the lying game and acting as a cup-bearer for the men of the order. Perhaps, this is what she has trained her stone face for.

Arya then describes a single, quick cut made near what must be the top of her face—notice how the blood washes down her face from brow to chin. To me, this evokes a straight line so I do not read this as single, circular cut removing her entire face.

We also get the description of the blade as warm, rather than either cool or hot. We also do not know what kind of blade is used – Arya’s eyes are closed, so we never see the instrument – but the text does describe the blade as metal. As sensory imagery, the warmth of the blade evokes blood and life so the most direct implication is the Kindly Man is using a magical process and the heat of the blade seems to imply fire magic.

So, yeah that’s a lot of blood, dripping from her brow all the way down to her chin – again implying that the blood is dripping from the top of her face. She describes “a curtain of blood washing” across her face. Here, George’s use of the word washing evokes a ritual cleansing with blood. And the use of the word curtain implies not only waves and movement, but also Arya’s face, hidden behind a curtain of blood.

Finally, Arya tasting blood mirrors the last image that we have of Bran. Bran lays down and dreams on a stone bed in Bloodraven’s cave and “as his life flowed out of him in a red tide, Brandon Stark could taste the blood.” Then, despite her warm blood and the warm blade, Arya shivers.

Third, A tug and a rustle

Then came a tug and a soft rustling as the new face was pulled down over the old.

First, “soft rustling” reminds us of leaves. And rustling is one of the words Bloodraven uses to describe what it would sound like if Bran tried to speak through a weirwood tree. Rustling is a magic word, so to speak.

Second, the text says the new face was “pulled down over the old.” Again, this is telling us the new face is placed over the top of Arya’s own face.

Fourth, Soaked with blood

The leather scraped across her brow, dry and stiff, but as her blood soaked into it, it soften and turned supple.

So the face placed on Arya feels like “dry and stiff leather” that is softening and transforming into a “true, solid” face as Arya’s blood soaks into it. Her blood is awaking or quickening the face the she dons. Let me state the obvious: this is blood magic. Arya gives the face her blood and it quickens.

Finally, Bad Memories

Her cheeks grew warm, flushed. She could feel her heart fluttering beneath her breast, and for one long moment she could not catch her breath. Hands closed her throat, hard as stone, choking her. Her own hands shot up to claw at the arms of her attacker, but there was no one there. A terrible sense of fear filled her, and she heard a noise, a hideous crunching noise, accompanied by blinding pain. A face floated in front of her, fat, beared, brutal, his mouth twisted with rage. She heard the priest say, “Breathe, child. Breathe out the fear. He is dead. She is dead. Her pain is gone, breathe.”

As if it wasn’t creepy enough that Arya is putting on a dead person’s face that revitalizes itself with an offering of her blood, the face is somehow imprinted with the memories of the deceased. As Arya dons the face, she remembers or relives the trauma of the Ugly Little Girl. Then, the Kindly Man tells her,

“You may have bad dreams from time to time. Her father beat her so often and so brutally that she was never truly free of pain or fear until she came to us.”

Lovely.

So, what is going here? Somehow the face not only remains “true and solid” for who- knows-how-long after the girl’s death, but it is also a vessel for some of her memories. Specifically it seems, memories of her pain and fear. Shout out to @ThisGrayArea on Twitter, who perfectly described the face as a “haunted skin.”

Note that this stands in contrast to what we know about glamors, which so far as we know, (1) do not create an exchange or transference of memory and emotion and (2) are not “true and solid” but instead made of light and shadow. It’s safe to say that if glamors are like a level 12 spell, the faces are at least level 30.

(3) Blood and Shadow

Let’s quickly review the key evidence we have about how quickening a face works—

  • It requires a blood sacrifice from the person donning the face, like Arya’s cut.
  • It awakens the memories of the dead person’s face.

Now let’s ask, what does that tell us about making the face?

  • It preserves not only the physical face, but also the memories of dead.
  • More likely than not, it requires the blood and face of the dead, possibly obtained while they are still living or while they are dying.

(a) Bran Dons a Raven

In many ways, the magic of the faces seems unique. But the eerie echo of the girl’s memories does recall one other passage:

“Someone else was in the raven… Some girl. I felt her.”

“Long dead, yet a part of her remains, just as a part of you would remain in Summer if your boy’s flesh were to die upon the morrow. A shadow on the soul…”

Bran II, A Dance with Dragons

I bring up this quote because “a shadow on the soul” seems like an apt description for the imprint of pain and suffering that Arya experiences when she dons the face. It explains the “haunted skin.” Not knowing more about how Bran “feels” the girl in the Raven, its possible he experienced something similar to Arya.

We also know that this “shadow on the soul” is distinguishable from second life—the Girl is dead and her soul is not experiencing second life in the raven. Instead, this “shadow on the soul” seems to be a different kind of partial soul imprint.

(b) WWMD (What Would Melisandre Do? or Weirwood Weapons of Mass Deception)

With this is mind, let’s ask: based on what we know from Melisandre and the Kindly Man, what would we need to make a disguise more potent than a glamor, as true as solid as the face you were born with?

Well, to start off with bones or a part of the person you’re trying to imitate, a la Rattleshirt’s bones would be really helpful. Given that the Faceless Men get dead folks entire bodies, we’ve got a check plus for creating what Melisandre would call the person’s essence or seeming. In fact, it seems possible the Faceless Men create glamors the same way as Melisandre when they are not using one of faces.

But the real rub is this—how are they not only keeping the person’s memories but also creating or preserving a face? This is the trickier question, but I think two components reveal themselves close to intuitively.

  • The blood that quickens the face is part of the blood magic price for using or awakening the face.
  • The Faceless Men must have some kind of vessel, like Bran’s still living bird or Bloodraven’s weirwood tree, to contain the dead person’s memories or seeming.

What is the vessel? For a few reasons, I think a good deal of evidence points to some kind of weirwood, shade of the evening tree, or bloodstone related substance. We just don’t have any other examples in world of preserved souls outside of green magic and Leaf seems to imply to Bran that the singers—that is even the children who were not greenseers—all had the ability to go into “rock and tree and stone” when they died.

(c) Death Masks and the God of Death: Historical Parallel Practices & Beliefs

The above evidence points to the faces being a kind of weirwood death mask—as the face’s owner dies, their blood and soul “go into” a weirwood vessel, leaving an imprint of both their likeness and their soul. It would be a corruption or imitation of the faces carved into the weirwood trees in Westeros.

The real world ritual history of death masks is deeply consistent with how GRRM describes the faces in couple major ways.

First, across earth cultures death masks have been given special status as embodying or signifying the watchful eyes of the dead. In Ancient Rome, for example a roman citizen could demonstrate his or her lineage

1024px-Napoleon_Death_Mask
Bronze Death Mask of Napolean

through imaginesdeath masks of their ancestors. These death masks were wax casts kept in the family shrine, called a lararium. Significant rites of passage in roman society, like initiating young members of the family or conducting funerals, were carried out at the shrine under the watch of the ancestral masks. Also, in Melenesian society – where ancestor worship is an important aspect of culture – both religious ceremonies and secret societies treated masks of the dead as a form of revelation, because a mask was linked to the spiritual presence of the ancestor it represented. So a death mask that actually does contain the spirit of the dead is simply dialing up real world religious belief all the way past ten – something we know George loves to do.

Minoan-Bull-Head-Rhyton
Minoan Bull’s Head Rhyton, a vessel used to contain the blood of sacrificial animals

Next, and perhaps even more on point, many historians believe the first masks in history were used by primitive cultures to imbue the wearer with unimpeachable authority, such as the authority or persona of the Gods. This is consistent with how the Faceless Men view death as a gift of the Many-Faced God. In essence, when donning a face to complete a killing, the Faceless Men take on an aspect of the many faced god and claim his authority supports their killing. This echoes early greek practice, where ritual sacrifice was often accepted by a person wearing a mask that signified a deity. For example, one historical explanation for the myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur relies on ritual sacrifice and masks. When Crete was the dominant power in the Aegean Sea, Athens and other greek cities paid tribute to Crete by presenting men and women for sacrifice in a religious ceremony performed by a priest wearing a bull mask to represent the Minoan sun god.

Within the order of the Faceless Men, donning a face before performing a killing is a kind of religious ritual where the assassin takes on an aspect of both the watchful, dead ancestor as well as an aspect of the Many-Faced God. As the Kindly Man makes clear to Arya after she choses to kill the Night’s Watch Deserter, Dareon—their order believes the gift is only to be given to someone marked by their God:

“And are you a god, to decide who should live and who should die?” he asked her. “We give the gift to those marked by Him of Many Faces, after prayers and sacrifice…

All men must die. We are but death’s instruments, not death himself. When you slew the singer, you took god’s powers on yourself. We kill men, but we do not presume to judge them. Do you understand?”

 The Blind Girl, A Dance with Dragons 

This passage reinforces the ritual nature of the assassin’s killing and in doing so suggests they may hold a genuine belief in the power of the magic they practice.

(d) Flayed Faces & Magical Preservatives: Counter-Arguments and Questions

Overall, the biggest counter-argument to the weirwood-death mask theory is how the faces feel – Arya describes the face pulled over hers as like leather and she also calls them skins. These descriptions call to mind an actual flayed face skin. The sharp blade cutting Arya’s face also evokes the words of the flayed-man sigil-ed House Bolton. So, could it be the skins are just that…regular old skins?

I think not, at least not without some kind of blood magick-y assistance. Given the shear number of faces in the hall, we can fairly assume the Faceless Men have been collecting the faces for quite some time and a regular, non-magic piece of flesh just isn’t going to hold up that well without some kind of special…uh, preservative? So perhaps the skins are gruesomely carved off of faces, but then attached or pressed into something—I’d guess Weirwood or Shade Tree bark—to help them “remember” their true nature. Or they are made like real world death masks—maybe weirwood paste or a thick version of shade of the evening is used as plaster to cast the face? Or maybe something similar can be done with oily black stone?

I’m going stop at that level of detail before we all vomit. My point is that we absolutely have evidence that magical substances related weirwood or connected to the magic of the Children fit with what we know about the faces and how they work. Plus, the imagery and magical concepts used in Arya and Bran’s chapters are deeply similar when compared.

Now, with this in mind, we are going to work our way back through the House of Black and White to see if we can pick up any other clues about what magic the Faceless Men use to serve the Many-Faced God.

II. Red Candles: The Flames are Bright and Full of…Memories?

As Arya walks into the House of Black and White for the first time, one of the first things she notices is how the place smells:

The air was warm and heavy, so heavy that she yawned. She could smell the candles. The scent was unfamiliar, and she put it down to some queer incense, but as she got deeper into the temple, they seemed to smell of pine needles and snow and hot stew. Good smells, Arya told herself she felt a little braver. Brave enough to slip Needle back into its sheath.

Arya I, A Feast for Crows

Then, in her next chapter, the Kindly Man specifically calls out how the candles smell.

“If they are afraid, the candles soothe them. When you smell our candles burning, what does it make you think of, my child?”

Winterfell, she might have said, I smell snow and smoke and pine needles. I smell the stables. I smell Hodor laughing, and Jon and Robb battling in the yard, Sansa singing about some stupid lady fair. I smell the crypts where the stone kings sit, I smell hot bread baking, I smell the godswood. I smell my wolf, I smell her fur, almost as if she were still behind me.

Arya II, A Feast for Crows

By two mentions in back to back chapters, GRRM is purposely drawing our attention to these candles. At first they are unfamiliar “like some queer incense” but quickly they become soothing with the familiar scents of Arya’s home. So, what’s the deal with that? I didn’t realize Yankee Candle sold a “Winterfell” scent in Braavos.

(a) Magically Delicious

The text speaks for itself here, so let’s go ahead and compare Arya’s description of the smell of the red candles to the taste of two other magical edibles: weirwood Paste and Shade of the Evening.

First, Bran experiences the taste of Weirwood seed paste very similarly to how Arya experiences the scent of the red candles.

It had a bitter taste, though not so bitter as acorn paste. The first spoonful was the hardest to get down. He almost retched it right back up. The second tasted better. The third was almost sweet. The rest he spooned up eagerly. Why had he thought that it was bitter? It tasted of honey, of new-fallen snow, of pepper and cinnamon and the last kiss his mother ever gave him. The empty bowl slipped from his fingers and clattered on the cavern floor.

Now, here’s Dany in the House of the Undying.

Dany raised the glass to her lips. The first sip tasted like ink and spoiled meat, foul, but when she swallowed it seemed to come to life within her. She could feel tendrils spreading through her chest, like fingers of fire coiling around her heart, and on her tongue was a taste like honey and anise and cream, like mother’s milk and Drogo‘s seed, like red meat and hot blood and molten gold. It was all the tastes she had ever known, and none of them … and then the glass was empty.

With both Weirwood Paste and Shade of the evening we immediately get the impression that magic is somehow invading the mind of the person who drinks it—it spreads throughout the body and seems to make the drinker taste their own memories. The memories are important ones too—memories of home, comfort, and experiences central to the drinker’s identity.

As an aside, Shade of the Evening is a great example of a “magical artifact.” It appears to give people who imbibe it magical visions, even if they themselves are not magical by bloodline.

(b) Visions of No-one

But while the sensory experiences of the red candles are similar to weirwood paste and Shade of the Evening, there are some notable distinctions.

First, the candles seem much more subtle and less invasive. Recall that Leaf tells Bran eating the paste will help “awaken his gifts and wed him to the trees.” Though marriage is not literally referenced in Dany’s shade experience, it is figuratively invoked, because “when she swallowed it seems to come to life within her” and “fingers of fire” coil around her heart. At least so far as we know, smelling the candles is not magically linking Arya to anything.

As a bit of a side bar, let’s consider the likely correct, extremely creepy theory

shadeandww
Weirwood & Shade of the Evening Trees by @WinterDesign

that weirwood paste contains Jojen’s blood or flesh. If Shade of the Evening and weirwood paste are parallel, then shade of the evening may also contain blood. My guess is that foul, spoiled meat taste could indicate blood or flesh mixed with magic. So, that may indicate a kind of magical recipe: blood plus part of tree equals a magical link between the person consuming the potion and the tree. This fits really well with what we know about blood magic. Plus, Arya describes one of the candles in her in alcove as a tallow candle. Shout out to brilliant @MelanieLot7 for this catch, tallow is rendered animal fat — meaning it fits for a tallow candle to contain flesh.

Second distinction for Arya, after Bran and Dany drink shade of the evening, they both receive visions. Bran sees back in time through the eyes of the Winterfell heart tree and Dany recieves set of visions of the past and future. Arya quite obviously does not receive trippy, time-bending visions from hot-boxing the red candles. This is another clue that whatever magic is inducing Arya’s nose guided walk down memory lane is either less invasive or otherwise different than the magical edible variety.

So, what gives then? I think its likely that a similar magical recipe is at play in making the candles of the House of Black and White, but it takes an extra step to trigger visions or some other long-term effect. If the candles have a magical, calming effect, it is possible there is some kind of off screen cost—perhaps it allows the Faceless Men to remotely view the sensations it triggers and thus learn about the people who seek the black cup or perhaps it seeks to erase memories to aid in turning acolytes into no one. Or maybe they’re just the Essosi version of pot.

For now, we’ll leave here, but in the next section we’ll briefly return to see how the candles may interact other artifacts in the temple.

III. Couches, and Cups, and Chairs: Homemaking for Mages

To complete our tour, we should look at few other miscellaneous items of interest in Faceless Men’s Temple–namely, the black cup, “dreaming couches” and the weirwood and ebony chairs. Each of items, even if not overtly magical, contribute to the atmosphere of the House of Black and White, as well as the understanding of the resources the Faceless Men use to aid the Many-Faced God. Again, keep in my mind that my goal is to make us think creatively about different explanations for potential magic, question our assumptions about what’s happening, and draw limited conclusions where there is clear evidence.

(a) The Poisoned Black Cup

I begin with the black cup and the still black pool because, in the fandom, this is one of the more analyzed aspects of the temple. The popular fandom belief in is that the waters of temple’s still black pool are poisoned. There are two pieces of strong evidence for this conclusion. The first is based on timing – people drink from the pool and then die:

The dead were never hard to find. They came to the House of Black and White, prayed for an hour or a day or a year, drank sweet dark water from the pool, and stretched out on a stone bed behind one god or another. They closed their eyes, and slept, and never woke.

Then, more directly, when the Kindly Man answers Arya’s inquiry about the Waif, we get a more full explanation:

Arya bit her lip. “Will I be like her?”

“No,” he said, “not unless you wish it. It is the poisons that have made her as you see her.

Poisons. She understood then. Every evening after prayer the waif emptied a stone flagon into the waters of the black pool.

But there is something curious about this explanation by itself – the water alone doesn’t seem like it is potent enough to kill, at least not in small doses. Recall, when Arya first walks into the temple we get this passage:

In the center of the temple she found the water she had heard; a pool ten feet across, black as ink and lit by dim red candles. Beside it sat a young man in a silvery cloak, weeping softly. She watched him dip a hand in the water, sending scarlet ripples racing across the pool. When he drew his fingers back he sucked them, one by one. He must be thirsty. There were stone cups along the rim of the pool. Arya filled one and brought it to him, so he could drink. The young man stared at her for a long moment when she offered it to him. “Valar morghulis,” he said.

Arya I, A Feast For Crows

I think the most plausible explanation is that the poison, or one of the poisons, used in the pool is sweetsleep. Arya describes the pool’s waters as sweet and dark and we know that sweet sleep is dosage sensitive—watch out Robin Arryn! Sweet sleep is also one of the poisons the waif teaches Arya about. But on the other hand, we don’t really have any evidence that sweet sleep in particular affects other people like it has the waif.

I would also suggest that one alternate explanation is that the black cup is poisoned, or at least it has a poisonous or magical part to play in the gift. The Kindly Man tells Arya that “those who come to drink from the black cup are looking for their angels,” which plays up the ritual role of the cup itself. As we move on to look at the dreaming couches, keep in mind that the black cup may have some special role to play in triggering sweet dreams and death. If the Black Cup must be offered by a servant of the House of Black and White, this may also allow the Faceless Men to control how the gift is given to those who seek it. At this point, I don’t think any of this is crystal clear from the text, but George has given us enough to question these mysteries.

(b) Dreaming Couches

Now, let’s talk about creepy alcoves and extremely firm, stony mattresses in caves! Namely, let’s look at what Arya calls the “dreaming couches” where she looks for corpses and then compare the couches with the stone bed where Bran receives visions in Bloodraven’s cave.

Dreaming couches are Arya’s name for one of the prominent features of the House of Black and White: the stone beds where people lay themselves to rest after drinking from the black cup. Here’s Blind!Arya finding a corpse one of them:

The second body was that of an old woman. She had gone to sleep upon a dreaming couch, in one of the hidden alcoves where special candles conjured visions of things loved and lost. A sweet death and a gentle one, the kindly man was fond of saying. Her fingers told her that the old woman had died with a smile on her face.

The Blind Girl, A Dance with Dragons

And here’s what happens after Arya offers the black cup to the dying man she encounters when she first enters the temple:

He lurched unsteadily toward the wall and crawled into an alcove onto a hard stone bed. When Arya peered around, she saw other alcoves too. On some there were old people sleeping.

Arya I, A Feast for Crows

Arya then scolds herself to look with her eyes as she realizes the old people are not in fact sleeping. The description of these hard stone beds in rocky alcoves matches the description of where Bran sleeps in Bloodraven’s cave after he consumes weirwood paste and while he has his first set of visions:

Their snug alcove in the rock was cold and empty. Hodor eased Bran down onto his bed, covered him with furs, and made a fire for them. A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees.

Bran III, A Dance With Dragons

Just like with Bran’s stone bed in Bloodraven’s cave, the bed or couch in the alcove either facilitates dreaming and visions or is part of the ritual invoking such dreams. Recall that the Children have gone into stone and earth as well as the trees and also the connections between rocky hollow hill locations and the Children’s magic—laying directly on stone, inside the earth may be a significant part of this underworld ritual.

Remember the creepy candles we were talking about, the ones Arya thinks of “special candles that conjure visions of things loved and lost”? Let’s think about them together with the dreaming couches. What if their purpose was to prepare seekers to receive the gift by priming them for the dreaming couch? Does the dream couch collect and absorb their memories? Does it help prepare the Faceless Men for making faces from the dead? Are the Faceless Men harvesting the visions the dying dreamers experience after they drink from the cup? Are these memories the same or different from the memories that end up embedded in the faces?

Something is definitely up here–which is why I included the seemingly minor stone beds in their alcoves in this section. The dreaming couches help to cement similarity between Bloodraven’s weirwood paste vision ritual and the Faceless Men’s special candle death ritual. Given the wealth of similar symbols, locations, and artifacts, I think it is abundantly clear that the magic involved is related, but beyond that, it is hard to know what that means for the motives of the Faceless Men. But, George is certainly leaving us a big hint asking us to look with our eyes and question the nature of what we’re seeing in House of Black and White.

(c) Weirwood and Ebony chairs

As I argued when I discussed the doors to the temple, I don’t think George places weirwood and ebony items as an abstract symbol—instead, he uses them as a sign that magic is present, that someone in the past or in current practice is tapped into blood magic and sorcery. Here, we not only have special doors and bunch of clues that the magic the Faceless Men tap into green magic and blood magic, we also have weirwood and ebony chairs with carved faces placed in what appears to be one of the most sacred and secret parts of the House of Black and White—the sanctum where the servants of the Many-Faced God meet to make life and death decisions:

Eleven servants of the Many-Faced God gathered that night beneath the temple, more than she had ever seen together at one time. Only the lordling and the fat fellow arrived by the front door; the rest came by secret ways, through tunnels and hidden passages. They wore their robes of black and white, but as they took their seats each man pulled his cowl down to show the face he had chosen to wear that day. Their tall chairs were carved of ebony and weirwood, like the doors of the temple above. The ebon chairs had weirwood faces on their backs, the weirwood chairs faces of carved ebony.

The Ugly Little Girl, A Dance with Dragons

Again, we see George has intentionally placed weirwood and ebony artifacts in a place of high honor and importance in the temple. Recall that in a “Rocky Knoll” I theorized that this woody black and white combination is a calling card for Essosi blood magic—so, this reinforces the conclusion that the Faceless Men are blood magic practitioners similar to the Undying or Tobho Mott.

Then, referencing the chairs and their carved faces in the same breath as the faces donned by the servants, subtly suggest an association between the two. Choosing to represent the faces worn by the servants in the medium of weirwood and ebony should cause us pause: are they representing the magic or medium that enabled the creation of the faces? The earlier portion of the passage emphasizing secret ways, tunnels and hidden passages also reinforces the connection to hollow hills and the magic of the children.

What Strange Sorcery?

So, do all these weirwood and ebony artifacts mean the Faceless Men are Greenseers? I doubt it. Instead, we have good reason to believe they have scavenged and appropriated artifacts from Children of the Forest and mingled them blood magic from Valyria and the East. Let’s review what we know.

First, the Faceless Men don’t skin-change animals, people, or trees in the same way

house_of_black_and_white_by_alldeles-d6xs8yj
The House of Black and White by Sofie Oldberg

greenseers like Bran and Bloodraven do. There is simply no evidence that Faceless Men’s consciousness can leave their bodies and enter another living organism while they are living.

Second, instead the magic of the faces seems more like a deathly echo of the Children’s magic. At best, they can preserve part of the essence of a likely dying person using the “haunted skin” death mask. Then, they can use a blood magic ritual to transfer the preserved skin to a servant. While preserving a person’s essence in weirwood vessel recalls greenseer magic, the rest of the ritual and practice is just too different to fit.

Next, the Faceless Men appear to use a wide variety of magical and non-magical forms of trickery. For example, they not only use glamors, but also poisons, stagecraft inspired artifice, and textbook spying and intelligence gathering. This style recalls practiced sorcerers and sorceresses like Melisandre, Mirri Maz Dur, or even Marwyn the Mage more than it does a magic-by-blood person like Bran or Dany.

Finally, while Braavos is overflowing with symbols associated with green magic from mists to hollow hills and watchful eyes, these symbols are mixed with Ebony and Black stone. The Seastone Titan, with fiery eyes and broken sword, is biggest example. Both Lucifer Means Lightbringer and Crowfood’s Daughter have persuasively argued that the Titan represents the Braavosi incarnation of the Azor Ahai monomyth, and thus a kind of magic that goes beyond the Children and suggests connections to the darker magic of the Bloodstone Emperor or at least the Sorcerers of Valyria, the land that gave birth to the Faceless Men.

What does this mishmash of magic tell us about the motives of the Faceless Men and their agent Jaqen H’gar roaming around citadel? These are question for our next installment, where will turn our focus away magic and towards political intrigue, mysterious motives, and ambitious plots.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s