You Win or You Die: The Ancient World of Game of Thrones

You Win or You Die: The Ancient World of Game of Thrones

by Ayelet Haimson Lushkov

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786722133
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 04/30/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, USA.

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You Win or You Die

The Ancient World of Game of Thrones

By Ayelet Haimson Lushkov

I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd

Copyright © 2017 Ayelet Haimson Lushkov
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78672-213-3


Feasts and Families

Unlimited meat and sweet wine. HOMER, ODYSSEY 9.557

The world of Game of Thrones is one of visceral, sensual experience. Across the Seven Kingdoms, the extreme conditions of war and coming winter reduce a once prosperous society to basic human impulses: food, sex, killing, and for the well-to-do, the scheming required to obtain, disperse, or withhold any of the above. What food, sex, and murder all have in common is a basic sense of transgression: they all involve the importation of foreign objects into the body, and they are experienced first and above all by the body and the senses. They are also each important in the formation and maintenance of alliances: marriage and rape both characterize two sides of victory in war, or, as often in the convulsed world of Westeros, provide a reason to go to war. Food, meanwhile, is a measure of success; in a world where winter lasts for years and years, prosperity, as the Tyrells demonstrate, is a matter of agriculture.

This chapter is about food, and while we'll come back to food as plain comestibles at the end of the chapter, the bulk of it is concerned with food in a very specific setting: the feast or heroic banquet. The word 'feast' conjures up visions of vast halls, a multitude of guests, and food spectacular in both quality and quantity. But feasts can be had in more humble circumstances, where hunger makes the best condiment. Crucial to all these occasions is the idea of communal eating, which consistently invites us to think about where the meal is happening, with whom, and how much of the food each person is getting. Feasts, as any bride planning her wedding can tell you, are a microcosm of society: some people get the best food at the best table and earlier (while it's still fresh and hot), while others settle – or are forced to settle – for less and later, when the best bits are gone, cold, or rotten. Food also needs to be sourced and acquired, and this too holds up a mirror to society: who can afford to buy what and in what quantity, and conversely, who has it in surplus to sell? Who hunts, and who gathers? Who eats meat, who eats fish, grain, or nothing at all? Feasts, especially when food is scarce, as it was in antiquity and as it increasingly becomes throughout the wars in Westeros, are a matter of politics and economics, and the places where people sit to eat together tell us a lot about that place and its values. Nor are these just questions that we impose as readers or as students of antiquity: the characters within Game of Thrones are acutely conscious of the semantics of food and eating.

In the prologue to A Clash of Kings, a feast is held on Dragonstone. For Stannis and his bannermen the feast is just another part of being a nobly born lord, but for the aged Maester Cressen, it is the end of a long day, in which the infirmity and indignity of his old age as well as the family drama of House Baratheon have been weighing heavily on his mind. The keep has recently been assigned a new young maester, come to aid Cressen in his duties, and Cressen says he does not mind. But it is at the feast, where he finds Pylos sat in Cressens own seat, that he feels the final indignity, and where Stannis turns from a just lord to a cruel one, forcing the old man to wear a fool's motley helmet. The feast emphasizes Cressen's fall from grace in other ways too. The whole prologue is, for Cressen, a long and tiring trek down one tower and up another, a distance he is forced to traverse to be close – and therefore useful and important – to his lord. In the world of the court, proximity is everything. Tired by the effort, Cressen takes a nap before the feast, but is allowed to oversleep, and arrives at the hall only after festivities have begun. As he stands at the doors, he thinks, 'They did not summon me. He was always summoned for feasts, seated near the salt, close to Lord Stannis' (CK 22). Salt was a precious commodity in antiquity as in the Middle Ages. Salt was important for many reasons in antiquity, chief among which was the fact that it allowed the ancients to preserve their meat for long durations of time. A contributing factor to the city of Rome's importance throughout the history of the Roman empire was its position along the Via Salaria, the 'Salt Road,' which was one of the major Western trading routes for this most precious of commodities. In fact, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, says that the Latin word salarium, from which we get the English word 'salary,' originally came from their word for salt, sal (Pliny, Natural History 31). Westeros seems to follow suit, since sitting by the salt here clearly implies sitting alongside the high and mighty, and especially near the lord himself. Indeed, Stannis and his bannermen are seated at an elevated high table, while knights and sellswords are sat at the lower tables, further and further away from the center of power. The feasting is only a small part of the chapter, but even so it offers a perfect snapshot of the situation on Dragonstone: the lord is at the center, with his followers spreading out beneath him. The only intruder is Melisandre, and her presence dislodges the old maester just as her religious ideology aims to dislodge the Faith of the Seven.

But this feast also has a sinister side to it, as Cressen attempts to reveal Melisandre for the evil he thinks her to be. Under her influence, we are led to imagine, Stannis changes from what he once was, and allows Cressen to be humiliated and eventually sacrifice himself in vain by sharing a poisoned cup with Melisandre.

Feasts aren't just a convenient site for poisoning, they're also a site for knowing the people and world around you, whom you can trust and whom you cannot. In fact, the very act of eating is one of trust: you're more vulnerable when seated, when your hands are full, when you're distracted by drink and entertainment; above all, you're placing your trust in the various people – largely out of sight – who prepare and serve your food, as well as those sitting nearby. As we shall see, classical mythology frequently deals with the themes of testing and trust involved in feasting, from the consumption of polluted food to the murder of a victim caught unawares. It's at a banquet, appropriately enough, that Odysseus punishes the greedy suitors of his wife, who don't realize who he is until it's too late. Feasting, knowledge, power, and revenge come together in the myth of Atreus, too: the king of Mycenae gets the better of his brother – and secures his royal power – by tricking Thyestes into eating his own sons. Although the act of feasting might seem like a simple celebration, an opportunity for a writer to engage us with descriptions both luxurious and grotesque, the occasion is also a microcosm of society, when we find ourselves among a diversity of people and interests, and we have to use our wits to navigate the social and intellectual challenges that face us both in the moment and throughout our lives.

Nor do feasts always have to end in tension or tragedy; they're also sites of conviviality, comedy, and bonding. The first book of Homer's Iliad ends with two diametrically opposed scenes of feasting: up in Olympus the gods – all one family – lay aside their quarrels to eat a grand banquet, and together they laugh at the lame god Hephaestus bustling around serving them (in a way that strikes our modern ears as strangely cruel). Whereas the banqueting gods enjoy music played by their fellow Olympian Apollo, earlier in the same book the Greeks have to sacrifice to Apollo, singing his praises to appease him following a devastating plague sent by the god. Two scenes of eating, on earth and in heaven, and two utterly contrasting moods among two extended families: the Greeks – the collective descendants of Danaus – are vulnerable and divided following an argument between their leaders and the subsequent plague; the gods, on the other hand, are immortal and harmonious even after a marital row between Zeus and Hera (who are siblings as well as husband and wife). The Homeric example teaches us to be on the lookout for comparisons and contrasts between various occasions of feasting, the moods that bubble to the surface and lurk underneath, and the myriad ways in which one episode can illuminate another.

Besides the feast itself, as even a cursory glance at the examples above reveals, this chapter is also about family, the context in which food is most often consumed and produced. Occasions for feeding and eating are also occasions which visibly demonstrate the choices we make and the feelings we have about family, as the macabre myth of the brothers Atreus and Thyestes neatly illustrates. The two concepts of food and family are not always directly connected: as we'll see later on, Jon Snow's complicated feelings about brotherhood have nothing to do with the way Jon likes his meat cooked or his wine diluted. But the presentation of these feelings is organized – made simple and visible – through the medium of the formal feast, which requires that his family behave and arrange themselves in a particular way. At the feast in Winterfell, Jon must behave like the bastard son that he is, which means that he can also view his family differently than in his day-to-day interactions with them, and differently again from the way he remembers them during his new life at the Wall. The Starks in turn, like their Baratheon and Lannister guests, must behave more formally and structurally because of the special occasion. Dinner, as every viewer of a soap opera will attest, throws people together, and thereby offers a perfect stage for domestic dramas. When the family in question is lordly or royal, however, as is the case with the protagonists of Game of Thrones or almost every mythical story in antiquity, the domestic is necessarily also political and global.

Scenes of Excess

Highly structured seating arrangements reveal a lot about the way a society sees itself. In ancient Rome and Athens, two societies which organized themselves according to an ideology of equality among certain classes of citizen, communal eating took a rather different form, with everyone (of that class) reclining together to eat and drink. In the classical Athenian symposium, for instance, aristocratic men participated in after-dinner conversation about politics or philosophy, while in Rome elaborate dinner parties were used not only to entertain friends but also to bribe voters before elections, show off wealth, and distribute largesse. In both cases, the private area in which the dinner party took place, the home of the host, was also a public space – or put differently, a place where elite men showed off their power or wealth or influence for an audience.

The classical symposium was characterized by an ideology of self-restraint, something that was central to the way the aristocracy of both Athens and Rome imagined themselves. This self-restraint was expressed in many ways, but one of the main ones was the moderate consumption of wine. Ancient wine was much stronger than its modern counterpart, and the wine was therefore mixed and measured out carefully. At the center of an Athenian symposium, for instance, was the wine vessel (the krater), in which the wine was mixed with water and from which the diluted wine was dispensed to the guests. Each symposium had a host, or master of ceremonies, a person charged with achieving the balance of levity and solemnity, fun and seriousness, that was the aim at these events. This host both directed the topic of conversation – often philosophy or some other refuge from the immediate affairs of the state – and, crucially, determined how many kraters would be drunk and at what ratio of dilution. Drinking unmixed wine, by contrast, was the marker of a savage, and invariably led to a bad end.

Being able to drink moderately in the symposium showed off not only manly virtue (the ability to control oneself) but also civic virtue (in remaining sober enough to participate in the exchange of ideas among equals). There is little doubt that this was more an ideal than a genuine glimpse of reality. Ancient love poetry, which specialized in celebrating and exploring the seamier aspects of society, regularly talks about women drinking, lovers gazing longingly at each other over the banquet table as the husband talks to other guests, or someone stumbling home drunk after a dinner party. Famously, the statesman Cicero accused Mark Antony, his enemy and later the lover of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, of showing up to hear cases in the forum while still drunk from last night's revel, and in a state so bad that he vomited in his own lap before the assembled crowd of petitioners and fellow senators. Whether Cicero's accusation was real or made up is difficult to know, but what even these instances show was that while the ideology of moderate consumption was certainly prevalent, young men and women, especially of the aristocratic classes, enjoyed flouting societal conventions, as indeed they do to this day.

The foreigner, whether man or woman, monstrous or human, was a quintessential figure in antiquity for the unruly drunk – presided over by the god of wine, Dionysus, who comes to Greece from Asia and promptly leads respectable ladies into orgiastic frenzies. The reason, curiously, is not only a moral looseness shown through a lack of moderation, but also their inability to hold their liquor, being unaccustomed to good vintage, lower dilution ratios, or civilized drinking altogether. For example, the Cyclops, the one-eyed monster who terrorizes Odysseus and his men, including penning them up like sheep and picking four off each day for a cannibalistic meal, can only be brought down because he's sleeping off his very first night of heavy drinking of unmixed wine. In a very different sphere of thought, the Romans allowed husbands and fathers to punish their womenfolk for drunkenness, on the principle that a drunk woman was more likely to lose control of her morals and to commit adultery – indeed, that she drank in order to commit adultery. Although these two examples are very different, they occupy two positions in a spectrum of ideas about drunkenness, wherein female drinking was immoderate because drunk women were deliberately morally loose, whereas men drank for pleasure, and thereby showed their moderation. Middle positions were occupied by a range of other characters, including (barely) functional alcoholics like Antony, by foreign women like Cleopatra (also notorious for conspicuously luxurious consumption) or later on the women of the Roman imperial family, who occupied powerful positions in their own right, or by young men sowing their wild oats. Moderate consumption of wine was a symbol of privilege: the ability to be drunk without remorse was in the main afforded to aristocratic men in sympotic scenarios. In moderation, wine was a symbol of status, taste, and relaxed leisure. In excess, wine was a marker of the threatening other: those who didn't know enough to keep themselves from drinking too much or too hard.

The world of Game of Thrones has several groups that anthropologists might term as the 'other,' on the assumption that the 'we' or 'same' effectively refer to the Seven Kingdoms. There are, of course, some obvious problems: the Seven Kingdoms are not the same as each other, and while the central southern kingdoms bear distinct similarities to each other, both the North and Dorne in the South are markedly 'othered' from the center around King's Landing. The North, for example, follows the Old Gods, while Dorne practices non-gendered primogeniture. But the Seven Kingdoms at least have in common a language (usefully called the Common Tongue), a shared system of feudal rule, a currency, and a throne. Outside Westeros, however, is a whole world whose people behave in – to Westerosi eyes – exotic and bewildering ways, which can be lumped together under the rubric 'not us.' So it can already be seen that the 'Other' is a flat and reductive label, and it doesn't do much to tell us anything about the people thus labeled.

A quick example to clarify before we come back to wine. The Tyrells of Highgarden are the most agricultural of the Great Houses, who live in a sort of earthly paradise characterized by beauty and abundance. Their motto, appropriately, is Growing Strong. The Tyrells also have two hereditary enemies: the Martells of Dorne and the Greyjoys of the Iron Islands. The two are not of the same kind, however. The Martells, arguably, are merely competition for resources, and an example of a different and competing type of luxurious abundance. Both Tyrells and Martells enjoy good food, good wine, and good weather, and the Martel motto, Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken, speaks to the same ideology of growth and resilience as Growing Strong. They are, in a sense, merely variations on a theme. The Greyjoys, however, are a different story altogether. They hail from the other side of the map, the stony North, and inhabit inhospitable and barren islands. Their economy is based on ships and piracy, in contrast to the Tyrell agricultural plow. And the Greyjoy motto cements the opposition: We Do Not Sow proclaims to the world a very specific rivalry, not with House Stark, who stand in the same relation to them as Dorne does to Highgarden, but with the emblematic House of growing things. To a Tyrell, Dorne is competition, but the Greyjoys are the definitive other.


Excerpted from You Win or You Die by Ayelet Haimson Lushkov. Copyright © 2017 Ayelet Haimson Lushkov. Excerpted by permission of I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, vi,
Note on Sources, viii,
Preface, x,
Chapter 1: Feasts and Families, 19,
Chapter 2: The Knights of Summer, 59,
Chapter 3: Epic Heroes, 113,
Chapter 4: Politics, 165,
Notes, 221,
Further Reading, 228,
Index, 231,

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