It is the motto of the Faceless Men -- a band of assassins renowned for their stealth, who have the ability to change their faces. In all likelihood, their history began as slaves, deep underground, toiling in the same volcanic mines where their Valyrian masters had first discovered the almighty dragons they used to conquer the known world (disclaimer: this is technically still just a "fan theory", but it seems fairly likely to me, given what the Kindly Man told Arya about where their guild "first took root" -- which in itself is a clue).
It is said the first Faceless Man, whoever he was, emerged from these mines sometime before the Doom obliterated the Valyrian Freehold, when he supposedly heard and answered the prayers of his fellow slaves -- slaves from disparate ends of the empire, who were all praying to different gods. This first Faceless Man told them that they all prayed to the same god -- a god of many faces -- and that he himself was this god's "instrument".
What happened after that, we're not entirely sure, other than Valyria was destroyed, and the Faceless Men somehow went from the Fourteen Fires (which, in all likelihood, was the source from which the Doom exploded) to Braavos, all the way across the continent, where they managed to build a reputation for themselves as the most feared assassins in all of the world. Which seems strange, doesn't it? The mighty dragon-riders of Valyria were all destroyed (excepting House Targaryen, of course), yet their lowly slaves, who mined the same volcanoes from which the Doom emanated, were not. I think it's therefore reasonable to assume (if the Kindly Man's history is accurate) that the Faceless Men were somehow responsible for this cataclysm.
But who was this first Faceless Man the Kindly Man speaks of, who proclaimed himself an instrument of the Many-Faced God, and liberated his enslaved brethren?
Well, that's just the thing. I'm of the opinion that GRRM wants us to believe the first Faceless Man was in fact a man, but I'm not so sure about that. I wonder, what if the first Faceless Man wasn't a man at all? What if he was a child -- a Child of the Forest?
But how did the Children, who live beyond the Wall in Westeros, get to the the volcanic pits of Valyria, all the way around the world? You'd have to ask Leaf. And when Bran does exactly that -- asks her where the Children went to when they disappeared from the world -- she replies, "Gone down into the earth... Into the stones, into the trees" (A Dance with Dragons, Ch. 34).
Now, does she mean they simply retreated to subterranean dwellings, like the cave Bloodraven is bound in, or is she referring to something else entirely? I mean, after all, these are "those who sing the song of the earth" (which is what the Children call themselves) we're talking about here. So I'm going to go out on a limb and say she was probably hinting at something a little deeper than a human being could possibly fathom. Perhaps even deep enough to travel to the other end of the world, depending on their biology, and the metaphysics of their sorcery, of course.
So, humor me. Let's just assume for argument's sake the first Faceless Man was in fact a Child of the Forest who appeared to the slaves of Valyria on a sojourn to the Fourteen Fires. What link do the two groups share? Well, faces, of course. The Children of the Forest worship faces -- many faces -- the faces they carve onto their weirwood trees. And, so strong is their reverence for faces, that their most holy place in all the world is even called the Isle of Faces (not the Isle of Trees, or the Isle of Greenseers, mind you -- the Isle of Faces). But, why would the Children care to convert humans to the "Many-Faced God"? Do they have a history of doing that sort of thing? Why, yes. Yes they do. We know that the First Men of the North and the Riverlands were converted to the Children's "Old Gods", at some point following the conclusion of the 2,000 year long struggle that saw humanity claim Westeros from them. The Starks pray to the faces the Children carved on the trees, as do the Boltons and the Blackwoods (i.e. the House of Bloodraven's mother). Yet, these were not the native gods the First Men brought with them from Essos (that was probably the "Drowned God" the Iron Islanders still hold to). These were the Children's gods. So, the Northmen either had to convert to them willingly -- or be converted.
Granted, the impression I always got when reading the books was that the First Men had come to worship the Old Gods without any proselytizing on the part of the Children. But, when you think about it, the First Men must've undergone a massive transformation in their faith, if they suddenly went from cutting down and burning weirwood trees to worshipping them. And, you've got to figure, the Iron Islanders never did come around, so someone, or something must've convinced them to do so.
Of course, I can imagine the First Men coming to the Old Gods of their own accord, given the fact their migration into Westeros was probably a long, drawn out process, rather than a unified assault, like the Andal Invasion. And, according to Leaf, they must've outnumbered the Children by a wide margin, given the fact that she tells Bran that the Children's numbers have always been few. Yet, the Children's greenseers still managed to fight humanity to a standstill for over 2,000 years with their sorcery. And, although the histories of the First Men claim they finally overcame the Children with superior size, weaponry and technology, I get the feeling the truth of it ultimately came down to numbers. The Children were few, and the First Men were many. But, you can imagine that these awesome displays of sorcery the Children wielded, which were capable of stopping whole hosts of warriors dead in their tracks, and even smashing geographical landmasses into oblivion (see: Arm of Dorne), might've put the fear of god into the First Men -- even if they did eventually overrun the Children, after enduring what must've seemed like almost unimaginable carnage at their hands for over two millennia.
And perhaps, just perhaps, the Children of the Forest started singing a different tune once they admitted all was lost. Perhaps their motto changed from Valar Morghulis -- All Men Must Die -- to Valar Dohaeris -- All Men Must Serve? And if that was the case, what better way to make men serve than convince them to worship your race as their gods? Because, that's who the "Old Gods" are, you know -- the Children themselves -- or rather, their greenseers. Why would I say that? Because the Children are not human, and do not understand "god" as humans do. They are creatures of nature that commune with the elements and live within the earth itself. Their "god" is something far beyond our comprehension. But we can understand their "Old Gods", because they are their ancient greenseers who commune with those natural forces we can't comprehend (i.e. the elements, the cycle of time, and death, or necromancy). And, as we know from A Dance with Dragons, in ancient times, back when the Children were more numerous, there was a greenseer living under each and every weirwood tree -- including those the First Men prayed to. So, when Ned Stark, or Roose Bolton, or Jeor Mormont prays to his weirwood tree, he's actually praying to a greenseer -- not a "god" (i.e. "Old Gods" = "Ancient Sorcerers").
And consider, if the Children truly do believe in the motto 'All Men Must Serve', would they not attempt to convert other peoples beyond the Northern wilds of Westeros? I think it fairly likely. But how would they go about doing it, if they're stuck beyond the Wall? Well, if they can manipulate the elements with their sorcery, and can travel "deep into the ground" due to their biology, it's possible their greenseers may have tried to contact other peoples either directly or by way of sorcery (like through the fires of R'hllor, perhaps?).
So bear with me here. The first Faceless Man was a Child who either contacted the subterranean slaves of the Fourteen Fires directly, face-to face, or through an element, such as fire, and instigated the Doom. The Faceless Men pledged to worship the Children's "Many-Faced God" -- who the Northmen call the "Old Gods" and the Asshai'i call "R'hllor" -- which was the Children's way of translating this very non-human concept to disparate groups of people -- in exchange for "The Gift" -- i.e. access to the Children's almost godlike sorcery.
But what exactly is the Children's sorcery comprised of? How does it work? According to the histories, the Children's armies were composed of singers, and greenseers. It's not exactly clear in what capacity the singers serve (as Bran seems to think they can't do much, other than sing sad songs), but the First Men claim the Children's greenseers used "dark magic" to bring down the "Hammer of the Waters" upon the Arm of Dorne, smashing it into an island chain. We're not entirely sure what was meant by "dark magic", but there is a type of magic known to the world that one might describe as "dark" (and, in all likelihood, probably didn't originate from a human source) -- blood magic. And, when one considers the visions Bran had of the white-haired people performing human sacrifices over weirwood trees (the ancient Others, perhaps?), we may have found our source -- the "people" living under those trees -- the Children. Perhaps human and/or animal blood increases their greenseers' power (which could explain why they waited so long to shatter the Arm of Dorne -- they were gaining their strength, filling up on the blood of the First Men)?
But whatever the case, the shattering of the Arm of Dorne is the only example we have in Westerosi history of something other than natural forces destroying a landmass. So, if the greenseers used the "Hammer of the Waters" to destroy a landbridge connecting Essos to Westeros, is it possible they might have used a "Hammer of the Fires" to destroy the Valyrian Freehold, in order to break the power of the only true source of innate "human magic" in the world -- that of the Valyrians -- who have "dragon's blood"? Could be. The Faceless Men were apparently spared from this fate in exchange for their service to the "Many-Faced God" (read: greenseers). And, not only were they given "the Gift" of blood magic, which granted them stealth and the ability to change their faces (in quite grisly fashion, might I add -- which I imagine blood magic always is), but also their freedom as well. They're forever indebted, I would think.
But what's it all for? Why are the Children doing this? Why tell one group of men "Winter Is Coming", while telling others "the Night is Dark and Full of Terrors", only to tell yet another group that "All Men Must Die"? Ragnarök is why. Winter Is Coming to make the Night Dark and Full of Terrors so All Men [Can] Die. As I explained in my previous post ("Loki's Tricks & the Children of the Forest"), since the greenseers couldn't defeat humanity with their brawn, they are attempting to do it with their brains -- their insight and knowledge. So, their greenseers have been positioning humanity about the world like chess pieces, for their own destructive ends. The peoples who worship the Children are either oppressed, and have reason to hate humanity (i.e. the pit-slaves of Valyria, and the slave-priests of Asshai), or were awestruck when they encountered the Children's sorcery directly (i.e. the First Men). And each of these peoples were taught a different kind of blood magic, inherent to the Children's understanding of nature -- warging for First Men -- shapeshifting for Faceless Men -- and necromancy for Red Priests.
But why bestow these "gifts" upon humankind if you mean to destroy them all in the end (i.e. Valar Morghulis)? Because, the Children need agents in the world in order to get them to Ragnarök -- like Jon Snow, and Danaerys. Their greenseers may be able to see the future, but they still need a means by which to reach those ends.
And clearly, in destroying the Valyrian Freehold, the Children vanquished their greatest threat. Because, if they didn't like fighting the First Men or the Andals, they sure as hell wouldn't have liked fighting an empire of all-powerful, uber-aggressive, dragon-riding Valyrians. But then again, if anything, the Doom only brought House Targaryen and their dragons to Westeros. So, why would the Children want that?
I'm guessing it had something to do with Bloodraven -- their Last Greenseer. If they could see the future, then they knew that Targaryen blood would eventually mix with the blood of the First Men -- i.e. dragon blood combining with warg blood. But, that begs the question, how exactly did warging get into the blood of the First Men? I'm guessing blood magic -- i.e. human sacrifice and cannibalism (which is alluded to in both Bran's visions, and the repeated accusations of cannibalism made by southerners against the Northmen). So, in Bloodraven, and Jon Snow for that matter (assuming R+L=J), we have hybrid blood -- blood that possesses both the ability to warg, and to bind dragons to its will. And if the Children's greenseers could see that far into the future, then they also knew that all of the Targaryen's dragons would die off relatively quickly (in Children-years) upon reaching Westeros, and that dragons would only reemerge when a vulnerable little girl, forced to wander the world in exile, would hatch three eggs in the Red Wastes of Essos at the end of A Game of Thrones.
And consider the North -- they get pretty good press in the books (at least in the beginning). They are honorable freedom fighters, pledged to avenge their lost lord and defend their homeland against a murderous boy-king in the name of their own freely chosen sovereign -- a native born son of the North. But what if the Northmen actually do deserve the less than stellar reputation they hold in the eyes of southerners, and virtually everyone else around Westeros, and beyond? What if Andal hatred for First Men stems more so from sorcery than from barbarism? Now we might be on to something.
Consider the Stark words -- Winter Is Coming. Throughout the books, several characters make mention of those being the only House words which are a warning rather than a boast. But what if the true meaning has been lost? What if they are a boast -- a battle cry -- a threat of sorcery? Winter Is Coming. Mess with us and we'll bring the winter to your doorstep (and perhaps a few White Walkers along with us). That would mean these words date back to a forgotten past, back to when Northmen practiced blood magic, and all of its grisly machinations, such as human sacrifice and cannibalism (and when you consider the fact that Old Craster still sacrifices his sons to the Others, and is probably a Stark bastard -- i.e. Krats is Stark spelt backwards, and Kratser may have been used as a nickname for him, i.e. the "backwards Stark", which would've become Kraster, or Craster, due to the consonant shift from 'ts' to 'st' in English -- it only lends credence to my theory). And what of the Boltons -- the 2nd most powerful House in the North? Their sigil is just as unique as the Stark words -- the most gruesome in all the land, by far -- but what if its true significance has been lost to the ages? What if the Flayed Man originally stood for something more than Bolton cruelty? If, say, it was once a threat of blood magic, then that would mean the two most powerful Houses in the North were connected to the Children's sorcery in their most ancient times (i.e. Bran the Builder, the Night's King, etc.).
Yet, if the Children were the ones who prodded the Targaryens westward, they must've foreseen this event. And if they were the ones to teach the First Men blood magic, why would they want it stamped out? That's a good question. It could be that the First Men could no longer be trusted, since they had come to adopt so many Andal customs and beliefs over the years. Or, perhaps it's just a necessary step to reach Ragnarök -- All Men Must Die. Because, if the Children ultimately cannot coexist with humankind, they'll eventually have to face down the First Men at some point. And, it would be far easier to bring about their destruction if they no longer had the means with which to fight back.
Again, that's just speculation on my part (your guess is as good as mine). But I think it's likely there's more to the North, and their relationship to the Children than meets the eye.
But, you may be wondering, what does any of this have to do with the Norse? In Norse mythology, both Fire & Blood (which is probably just a coincidence that those happen to be the words of House Targaryen) were sacred. Fire was a purifying agent -- the cleanest death, as Melisandre might say -- as the Norse believed the body was comprised of two souls -- a dream soul, and a primeval soul. The dream soul was awakened through dreams and trance, whereas the primeval soul was basic and elemental, and comprised of passion, free will and the senses. Upon death, the primeval soul used the dream soul as a medium to enter the world of the gods, which could only be achieved through the immolation of the body (hence Viking ship burials and fire festivals). Granted, this was not a uniform practice, as certain tribes in certain regions practiced burial rather than cremation at different times in their history -- but cremation was the preferred method of funeral rite for the majority for most of their history. They would often build massive funeral pyres to burn their dead -- so large in size they burned hotter than modern crematoriums -- because they believed the towering column of smoke they created delivered the soul unto the heavens. And these practices are mirrored almost exactly by both House Tully's funeral rites -- who cremate their patriarch, Hoster Tully, aboard a longship -- and the Lady Melisandre, who immolates men in sacrifice, and torched the statues of the Seven on the beaches of Dragonstone (in an event that fairly closely resembles a Norse fire festival). Consider as well, that Norse paganism, and virtually all branches of European paganism, for that matter, originate from the same source (i.e. the root religion of the Proto-Indo-European tribes) as both the Vedas of ancient India, and the Zoroastrian faith of ancient Persia (see: Agni). And GRRM has said himself, on numerous occasions, that he specifically modeled the R'hllor religion of Asshai on Zoroastrianism... Turns out, so did the Norse.
But what about the second half of the Targaryen motto -- you know, the "& Blood" part? In Norse mythology, the flesh and blood were said to bestow great knowledge and power upon those who consumed it. The legend of the god Kvasir is illustrative of this (FYI: Kvasir is equivalent to Jojen Reed in ASOIAF). Kvasir was the wisest of the gods, but was killed by dwarves and drained of his blood. The dwarves then used his blood to make the "Mead of Poetry", which imbued great wisdom upon those who drank it.
Similarly, Odin was said to have cut out his eye in order to gain the power of insight (i.e. to open his third eye), much the same as Bran's fall causes the transformation within him. And Odin even committed suicide in order to gain dominion over the 9 worlds the Norse believed the universe was comprised of. He supposedly pierced himself with a spear and hanged himself from the World Tree Yggdrasil because he was curious to find out what death was like, and wanted to attain the power that death was thought to confer. And, after hanging there for 9 days and nights, he did in fact emerge from Yggdrasil all-powerful -- the greatest and foremost of the gods.
These two themes are explored in ASOIAF by way of the Children's use of fire & blood as powerful mediums for their sorcery. Fire is both a means by which to communicate with and "purify" humanity, and blood is consumed and/or used in order to gain supernatural powers. So, at the very least, that's how (and why) the fires of R'hllor and blood magic work. Or, at least, that's my best guess at the moment.
Also -- I wonder if the Children use the Faceless Men and the Red Priests of R'hllor sort of like a filling station for their blood magic? Perhaps they do it because the First Men no longer sacrifice to weirwoods anymore like they used to? Could be. Just throwing it out there.
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