Where Did Dragons Come From? A Brief History of Old Valyria


They held each other close, and turned their backs upon the end,
The hills that split asunder, and the black that ate the skies.
The flames that shot so high and hot, that even dragons burned,
Would never be the final sights that fell upon their eyes.

A fly upon a wall, the waves the sea wind whipped and churned,
A city of a thousand years and all that men had learned,
The doom consumed them all alike, and neither of them turned.

-The Dance of the Dragons

There are many things we take for granted in the World of Ice and Fire. There is a large Wall that divides the Seven Kingdoms from the Lands of Always Winter. A Stark will always rule in Winterfell. The seasons will not proceed in an orderly manner. Winter will come, but usually at an inconvenient moment.

One fact that used to be taken for granted was that Targaryens were Blood of the Dragon. But something happened between then and now that changed that immutable fact: dragons died out. From 153 AC, during the reign of King Aegon III Targaryen, until 299 AC, when Dany birthed her three dragons, there were none in the world.

But where did dragons come from? Why are the Targaryen descendants able to birth them, but not others people from Westeros? Why did they die out? And why have they now returned?

The story of dragons begins later than you think. We talk a lot in these history posts about a time called The Age of Heroes, which lasted from approximately 10,000 BC (Before Aegon’s Conquest) to 8,000 BC. It was during this period when many of the ancient Houses of Westeros were first founded, including the Lannisters and the Starks. This was the time of the last Long Night, when Azor Ahai wielded Lightbringer and defeated the Others (known in the show as White Walkers.) This was the time of the Building of the Wall and the Night’s King. One would think, in this age, Dragons would be plentiful, flying the friendly skies, saddled up by those Heroes of the Age and ridden into battle. One would be very wrong.

Bran the Builder, a Stark who lived during the Age of Heroes and built the Wall.

Dragons, in fact, were not present in Westeros OR Essos during the Age of Heroes, a fact all viewers would do good to remember when the next Long Night falls. The first recorded domestication of Dragons was not recorded until thousands of years later, ca. ~5,000 BC, on a peninsula in Essos known as Valyria. The people of this region were, by all accounts, mostly shepherds and farmers. They first discovered dragons living in a chain of volcanoes that stretched across the headland. By the use of magic (which unfortunately we don’t know very much about, as the records were lost), they tamed and harnessed the Dragons.

This happened during the height of the Ghicari Empire, which had ruled Essos for centuries. Ghis is considered to be perhaps the oldest known culture on all of Planetos. When the Valyrians rose up, armed with their new beasts, the Ghiscari attempted to conquer their upstart neighbors and harness the new creatures for their own. Over a series of five different wars, known as the Ghiscari Wars, the Valyrians conquered the Ghiscari and their lands, ultimately leaving behind only three cities in Slavers Bay: Yunkai, Astapor and Meereen. (The Unsullied, for the record, were a Ghiscari creation, and one of the few surviving parts of the culture.)

With the Ghiscari defeated, Valyria now ruled a major potion of Essos called the Valyrian Freehold, so named because the people the Valyrians conquered were not considered subjects, but free people in a quasi-democratic society. (In theory, all freeborn landholders had a say in government, but like most large, unwieldy democracies, it quickly became an oligarchy.) Because they used to be part of the Freehold, many cities in Essos are still known as “the Free Cities.”

Volantis is the oldest of the Free Cities, and its people still follow many Valyrian traditions.

Over the following centuries, the Valyrian Freehold would extend its borders to conquer nearly all of Essos. Curiously, they never bothered to cross the Narrow Sea and conquer Westeros, as it was considered too much of a backwater to bother. Only in two instances do we see contact with Westeros. First, in what is known as the Rhoynar migration, refugees fled to Westeros after Valyria conquered their home cites around 700 BC. The Rhoynish leaders intermarried with the Martell clan, leading them to power, and forming Dorne as we know it today. The second was the Targaryens occupying the island known today as Dragonstone.

Dragonstone was a small outpost annexed by the Valyrians around 200 BC. The Targaryen family, a relatively minor Dragonlord House among the 40 ruling families of the Freehold, agreed to take control of the island, and build the towers as they currently stand. A few years later, the entire family resettled after Daenys the Dreamer had visions of a coming cataclysm that would swallow Valyria and destroy its empire. When the Doom came, only twelve years later in 114 BC, the Targaryens were the only Valyrians Dragonlords to survive, and their three dragons were the only ones left in the world.

So what was the “Doom of Valyria?” We heard songs and stories of this great cataclysm, but the truth is, due to the lack of scientific record keeping, we can only surmise from the evidence left.

Whatever it was, it decimated the landscape. The center of the Valyrian peninsula was wiped out. The capital city was destroyed, and there were no survivors so far as we know. Clearly this was the result of heavy seismic activity—note that the Smoking Sea now lays where the Fourteen Flames (the powerful volcano chain) used to be. From what we know, the waters of the sea were poisonous for centuries after. The Peninsula was never resettled. It is now a wasteland—on the show, the leper-like Stonemen are sent there so they can die without exposing anyone to their disease.

With the head chopped off, the Freehold fell into chaos. Ultimately, the city-states broke apart into the independent “Free Cities” we know today: Pentos, where Dany started her journey; Lys, where Varys was born; Myr, home of Thoros of Myr; Tyrosh, where Daario was born; Volantis, which we visited last season; and more. This is why the upper classes in these cities still speak High Valyrian (as do those in the cities of Slaver’s Bay, as they were ruled by the Valyrians for centuries.)

So why didn’t the Targaryens attempt to rejoin with some of the more powerful Free Cities, like Volantis, and attempt to rebuild the Freehold? This may be a question  to which we’ll never know the answer. Instead, Aegon the Conquerer turned his ambitions to Westeros. (A far easier target, as the people of Westeros were utterly unprepared to deal with dragons.) He and his sisters succeeded in conquering six of the Seven Kingdoms over the course of three years, establishing the Targaryen rule in 1AC. (Only Dorne, with its Rhoynish descendants, held out, until the Targaryens finally brought them aboard through marriage pacts in 170 AC.)

The Westerosi Dance of the Dragons pitted members of the Targaryen family against each other. It was one of the last times dragons were widespread.

But by the time Dorne was inducted as the Seventh Kingdom, dragons had already been dead for a decade. Why did they die out? Some blame the Dance of the Dragons, which we saw Shireen studying in her final days. That war tore the Targaryen family apart, and killed many of the dragons they had in stock. Others blame the maesters, for convincing the Targaryens to keep their dragons in catacombs under King’s Landing, which stunted their development, ultimately rendering them the size of small dogs at full growth.

But for such evolution to occur in only 150 years is a shockingly quick change for any animal. (Consider that it took thousands of years for dogs to evolve from wolves.) There are suggestions that, with the volcanoes that birthed them now dead, magic began leaking out of the world, and it took the Dragons with them. Or perhaps the death of the dragons drained the magic from the world? Again, record-keeping on this is not scientific enough for us to know.

What we do know is this: almost 150 years after the last dragon died out, Daenaerys Targaryen was the first to successfully birth dragons after generations of her ancestors burned to death trying. Why they returned, and how they brought magic back into the world, is not yet clear. But with Winter coming over the Wall any day now, their fires will be most necessary very soon.

Next: Lino Facioli (Robin Arryn) returning for Season 6