The White Walkers (or the Others, as they’re called in the Song of Ice and Fire novels) are nightmare beings whose mythical forefathers have haunted mankind ever since we learned to be afraid of the dark. Who are these White Walkers? Where do they come from? George R. R. Martin is tight-lipped on the subject, and there is an important reason for that. In this article, we are going to take a journey back through time, through mythology and folklore, to explore the roots of these terrible creatures.
In Martin’s story, the first White Walker is created by the Children of the Forest. But really, the creatures are a combination of Martin’s vivid imagination mixed with elements borrowed from traditional folklore/mythology and its archetypes. Let’s look into the heart of winter and see what looks back.
The White Walkers are beings that come with the cold: tall, desiccated creatures with flesh as pale as milk, burning blue eyes, ice swords and the ability to reanimate dead men and women as wights. The best dramatic introduction to who and what they are is probably provided by Old Nan, as she watches over the injured Brandon Stark in “Lord Snow” (S1/Ep3):
"Oh. My sweet summer child, what do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides for years and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little lord, when the White Walkers move through the woods. Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles same as the shepherds in their huts. And women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept, and felt their tears freeze on their cheeks. So is this the sort of story that you like? (Bran nods, frightened) In that darkness, the White Walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders, big as hounds."
Old Nan’s monologue is creepy, but provides few clues as to what the White Walkers actually are. While the ASOIAF books and HBO’s TV adaptation offer plenty of physical and contextual descriptions, Martin is often cryptic concerning the origins and nature of the White Walkers. Comic book artist Tommy Patterson worked with Martin on The Game of Thrones Graphic Novel Vol. 1 and added some of his notes in “The Battle for the Others” chapter of the book. Patterson says that “[Martin] spoke a lot about what [the Others] were not, but what they were was harder to put into words.”
When Patterson asked if the Others were dead, Martin responded with an email: “The Others are not dead. They are strange, beautiful … think of Sidhe made of ice, something like that … a different sort of life … inhuman, elegant, dangerous.” When asked in an interview about the magical ice swords, Martin is equally elusive: “Ice. But not like regular old ice. The Others can do things with ice that we can’t imagine and make substances of it.”
In short, the White Walkers are shrouded in mystery, and Martin is going to keep it that way.
It’s interesting that Martin chooses to describe his White Walkers as “the Others,” since “the other” is a term used to describe the process of dehumanizing one’s adversaries. When the “other” remains threatening and unknown, the sense of its inhuman evil grows. In his master work The Great War and Modern Memory, author Paul Fussel explains how WW1 soldiers in opposing trenches demonized their unseen enemies: “Living in the ‘other’ land, the strange land that we could not enter, the ‘garden over the wall’ of the nightmare … it is no wonder that the enemy took on attributes of the monstrous and grotesque … inhuman.” In Game of Thrones, the Wall replaces the trench, and the Westerosi people, like those soldiers in World War I, huddle in horror in the face of the great, unseen, malevolent unknown.
Since the terrifying power of the unknown is essential to the power of the Others, Martin’s unwillingness to explain their nature and motives is predictable. Once they became familiar, the Others would lose their ominous cloak of mystery. They would lose their ‘otherness’. But we can still take a look at the ancient and more recent connections Martin’s icy creations have with their forebears in world myth, folklore and classic fantasy literature (and even factual history). So, from where in the dark shades of long ago do the soul-chilling White Walkers come from?
Since Martin himself refers to the mysterious Sidhe, let’s start there.
Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan 1911
Aos Si (Sidhe)
Also known as aes sidhe, this term refers to an ancient supernatural race similar to fairies and elves that appear in Irish and Scottish mythology. The Sidhe are said to live in unknown lands across the sea, underground in fairy mounds (“aos si” means “people of the mounds” in Irish) or an alternate world connected by various means to the world of humans. Martin’s White Walkers are similar in their distant origins (far North) and their movement between regular space and time, as when the Night King interacted with Bran Stark in the latter’s greensight visions.
In Scottish mythology (where they are called the daoine sith), these folk are described as natural spirits but also as ancestors and gods. The Aos Si have appeared in Gaelic folklore as creatures both stunningly beautiful and grotesquely ugly, and their place of origin has been associated with the Land of the Dead. Obviously, Martin is channeling the darker side of these fairies — Irish and Scottish stories also tell of the slaughe sidhe (the “fairy horde”), a flying mass of cursed and/or evil spirits.
The Aos si are known to be protective of their home, which is often a fairy hill, a fairy ring or a hawthorne tree. There are parallels here to the White Walkers and their relationships to the ancient patterns made by the Children of the Forest, the weirwood trees and greensight.
The Wild Hunt by Peter Nicolai Arbo 1872
The Wild Hunt
Famous throughout much of Europe folklore, the Wild Hunt involves a stormy procession of ghostly or supernatural huntsmen passing across the winter sky in pursuit of game. The leader (generally referred to as ‘The Hunter’) is often named and believed to be associated with the Norse god Odin (Woden), the Devil or a number of other local historical/mythological figures. The members of the hunt are said to be fairies, elves or the dead. Anyone who is an eyewitness to the Wild Hunt is most likely doomed, perhaps by a looming catastrophe such as a war or plague.
The website Norse-mythology.org describes the intense psychological connection between winter and the appearance of the dead in the northern European mythology of the Wild Hunt:
"It was as if the very elements of midwinter – the menacing cold, the almost unrelenting darkness, the eerie, desolate silence broken only by the baying winds and galloping storms – manifested the restless dead, and the ancient northern Europeans, whose ways of life and worldviews predisposed them to sense the spiritual qualities in the world around them, recorded the sometimes terrifying fruits of such an engagement with the more-than-human world in their accounts of the Wild Hunt."
The conceptual parallels between the Wild Hunt and the White Walkers are significant. The Wild Horde appears in the deepest, darkest and coldest reaches of midwinter, and its single leader, like the Night King, has great supernatural powers. Odin, a Norse god of the dead (among many other things), is often portrayed as the leader of the Wild Hunt. And like the White Walker’s wight horde, the Wild Hunt horde is often described as the reanimated dead.
The Ride of the Valkyrs by John Charles Dollman 1909
Riding famously down from the heavens, the Old Norse Valkyrie (from the Old Norse valkyrja for ‘chooser of the slain’) are a host of female warriors tasked with descending to earth to resurrect half the dead human warriors (the ‘Einherjar,’ see below) from the battlefield and carry them to Valhalla. The fairest Valkyrie has white skin.
The Valkyrie, also called “death-maidens” in the Prose Edda, operate under the auspices of Odin, and their talent for human resurrection bears some resemblance to what the Night King pulled off in the “Hardhome” episode. The Valkyrie are also connected to ravens and horses, both important elements in Game of Thrones.
Author Rudolph Simek (A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, 2007) believes the Valkyrie began as “demons of the dead to whom warriors slain on the battlefield belonged”, and their transformation into shield maidens may have happened “when the concept of Valhalla changed from a battlefield to a warrior’s paradise.” George R. R. Martin’s White Walkers more resemble the earlier demonic version.
Walhall by Emil Doepler (The Einherjar) 1905
The Norse Einherjar are interesting as an example of resurrected human warriors. They make their first appearance in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. In old Norse, ‘einherjar’ means “single (or once) fighters.” They were killed while exhibiting bravery in battle, and resurrected and taken to Valhalla by the Valkyries.
Unlike the decaying wights, the Einherjar are vital, flesh-and-blood fighters who feast nightly. They see their ranks swell as the Valkyrie bring new dead from the mortal battlefields, and are always preparing for the time of Ragnarok and the great final battle on the field of Vigrior.
The similarities to White Walker are broad—like the wights, the Einherjar are essentially an undead army. Beyond that, the similarities end. The Valkyrie are selective, raise the dead whole, and escort them into an eternal feast of heavenly pork and mead. On the other hand, the Night King raises his armies en masse as zombie-wights who suffer from physical decay.
Moving on to actual history, let’s take a look at the Harii, a frightening Germanic tribe that mythology scholars often connect with the Einherjar. Writing in the 1st century AD, ancient Roman historian Tacitus described them this in his Germania:
"As for the Harii, quite apart from their strength, which exceeds that of the other tribes I have just listed, they pander to their innate savagery by skill and timing: with black shields and painted bodies, they choose dark nights to fight, and by means of terror and shadow of a ghostly army they cause panic, since no enemy can bear a sight so unexpected and hellish; in every battle the eyes are the first to be conquered."
Scholars (including John Lindow, author of Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs) have connected this ancient army of the living with the mythological armies of the dead such as the Einherjar and the Wild Hunt. With that as a starting point, it’s not hard to then make the connection between them and the army of the dead in Game of Thrones.
An old Norse undead creature, the draugr is a reanimated human who guards his own grave, or burial mound. They possess incredible strength, can increase their size at will and carry with them an awful stench of decomposition. Like Martin’s wights, draugr bodies are hideous and blackened, though draugrs tend to also swell up.
Although confined somewhat to their barrows, the draugr share some physical traits with the White Walkers and wights, but the real similarities come in when we consider the draugrs’ magical abilities (called ‘trollskap‘), which include shapeshifting (warging), manipulating weather (the White Walkers bringing the cold with them) and seeing into the future (greensight). What’s more, the draugr can enter the dreams of the living (as the Night King does to Bran Stark) and potentially curse their victims.
Draugr are also immune to most weapons, although iron can hurt them. The best way to defeat a draugr is to wrestle it down into its grave, chop off the head, burn the body (as people in the North make sure to burn the bodies of fallen men and women lest they rise again as wights) and dump the ashes into the sea.
Another parallel the draugrs have with the White Walkers is their color: in the Icelandic Grettis and Laxdaela sagas, the draugr are described as being hel-blár (“death-blue”) or nár-fölr (“corpse-pale”). “Death-blue” describes the White Walkers’ color very well. J.R.R. Tolkien, a major influence on Martin, based his Barrow-wights on the legend of the Draugr.
The Nazgul, or Ringwraiths, are fictional characters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings world. George R.R. Martin has admitted that he reveres Tolkien and considers him the father of modern fantasy, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that some of Martin’s creations might have roots in Tolkien’s deeply researched mythological beings.
The Nazgul are nine mortal men who fell under the complete control of the evil Sauron, who turned them into near-immortal wraiths and “most terrible servants.” Their bodies have become invisible, although when Frodo Baggins wore the One Ring around them, he saw them as pale figures with crowns. The Witch-King of Angmar is their leader. He carries a Morgul blade that can turn a human into a wraith, and used black magic to destroy the gates of Minas Tirith.
Like the White Walkers, the Nazgul ride fearsome mounts, and have a leader who can transform people into undead beings. But Tolkien identifies their chief weapon as “terror”:
"The Nazgûl came again . . . like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.—J R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King"
Dead of Dunharrow
The Dead of Dunharrow are another fictional creation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s. The group is also known as The Shadow Host and The Gray Host. These are the ghosts of the men of the White Mountains, an army who betrayed King Isildur by refusing to honor their oath to come to his aid when he fought the Dark Lord Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance. Isildur punished the entire army, cursing their spirits to wander without rest until they fulfilled their oath to him or one of his descendants. The curse was lifted thousands of years later when Aragorn (Isildur’s direct heir) called upon the Dead of Dunharrow to fight alongside him in the War of the Ring. Once their pledge was fulfilled, the Dead vanished, finally released into the afterlife.
Although they are an army of spirits in limbo, the Dead of Dunharrow are different from the White Walkers and their wights because they appear to be shades. Their ghostly horses all move at the same speed, and though they carry weapons and communicate through horn blasts, these things probably did not have a physical presence. Their great value was their ability to unnerve their opponents through fear.
Thulsa Doom vs Kull from comic Kull 2 by Marie and John Severin 1977
A relative newcomer to the world of fantasy fiction, the undead lich (from the Old English “lic,” word for “corpse”) is an invention of fantasy authors. It makes early appearances as Thulsa Doom in the works of Robert E. Howard (Skull-Face, Scarlet Tears) and Ambrose Bierce (The Death of Halpin Frayser). This character is the result of a transformation, usually a powerful sorcerer or king seeking great power and/or immortality who is reduced to a shriveled or brutally deformed and wasted hulk in the process.
Lichs are rare and and the result of a story-specific process rather than being a member of a homogeneous race or group. Despite becoming physically desiccated, the Lich retains his/her intelligence (or even becomes smarter) and often controls hordes of zombie-like undead creatures. This is similar to how the Night King, who also underwent a physical transformation courtesy of the Children of the Forest (albeit an unwilling one), controls his own army of the dead.
Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones by Gustav Dore 1866
With the help of God, Ezekiel raises an army of dead Israelites to take back their homeland. The dead are reanimated as living, breathing human beings. Here’s how they’re described in a passage known as “the vision of the Valley of dry bones:”
"“… there was a noise, a rattling sound, and bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them … and breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.” (Ezekiel 37:7-10)"
The Night King performs a similar feat when he reanimates the slaughtered wildling army at Hardhome, although his resurrected wights are rather the worse for wear.
Here are some assorted mythical/folklore creatures who display some of the characteristics we see in the Night King, the White Walkers and the wights.
- Fext (Slavic): 17th century undead creatures born of the terrors of the Thirty Years War, the Fext were believed to be immortal, vulnerable only to bullets made of glass. Super-specific vulnerability is also an aspect of the White Walkers, who can only be killed by dragonglass or Valyrian steel.
- Barbegazi (Swiss/French): Very much a traditional type, this rarely-sighted mountain dwarf/gnome usually appears as a small man covered in white fur with a bushy beard and huge feet it can use as snowshoes or sleds to negotiate precipitous slopes. Like White Walkers, the Barbegazi (the name comes from the French barbe-glacee for “frozen beard”) remain dormant during the summer and only emerge in the winter, at the first snowfall. Unlike the White Walkers, the Barbegazi can be helpful to humans.
While George R.R. Martin’s White Walkers are unique creations, he has incorporated psychological and physiological characteristics found in other mythological creatures that have been frightening human beings from the dawn of time right up until today. From the alternate fairy worlds of the Sidhe to the midwinter horde of the Wild Hunt, from the dead-resurrecting Valkyrie to the blue-skinned draugr, we can see the mythological and folkloric underpinnings of the White Walkers and their wight army winking at us from the oldest and darkest cellars of the human imagination.
Can you guys think of any other myth or folklore creatures that might have helped inspire Martin’s White Walkers? Please add them in the Comments.