A throne fit for a messiah: Daenerys Targaryen as a contemporary Christ

Today’s advent essay comes from Joanna Fountain, one of the students who took our Bible and Popular Culture course (THEOREL 101) earlier this year. Joanna has just completed her third year of studies towards her Bachelor of Arts degree, double majoring in history and classical studies. After university she hopes to become a published writer, encouraging future generations to get off their screens and read a book instead. Joanna enroled in Theorel 101 out of interest, and assures me that she  thoroughly enjoyed taking the course – and would highly recommend it!

Joanna’s essay touches on one of our more popular themes in the course – modern messiahs in pop culture. So read on, and enjoy.

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Protector of the Realm, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen as a Christ Figure in Game of Thrones

by

Joanna Fountain

“This Mother of Dragons, this Breaker of Chains, is above all a rescuer.

-Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 5)

As Bruce David Forbes says, “religion appears not only in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; it also appears in popular culture” (2005, 1). Often appearing in the fantasy genre of literature and visual media, including film and television, is the common trope of a messianic protagonist who is very much the hero of the story. In George R. R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros, there is no one singular protagonist, but in the character of Daenerys Targaryen are numerous indicators of a Christ figure. Such a figure appears in popular culture again and again, subsequently creating the concept of the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). In many ways, Daenerys Targaryen provides an implicit parallel to the biblical Christ as a secular counterpart. The circumstances surrounding multiple events in her life, the messianic symbols attached to her character, and her perceived image by others as a liberator and a powerful contender all bear a close resemblance to the Biblical narrative of Jesus Christ as told in the New Testament Gospels. This essay will seek to explain how Daenerys Targaryen both fulfils and sabotages the notion of the American Monomyth in the way that she is a messiah figure who operates outside the standard black and white paradigm, rather operating within shades of grey in her characterisation. Because this essay will discuss plot details of both Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present) and the HBO television series Game of Thrones (2011-present), spoilers will follow.
game-of-thrones-daenerys-dragonFig 1: Daenerys hatches three dragons in “Fire and Blood” (1.10)

According to the writings of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, the American Monomyth secularises “the Judaeo-Christian dramas of community redemption”, creating a character who embodies a combination of the ‘selfless servant’ who sacrifices their own needs for those of others and the ‘zealous crusader’ who triumphs over evil (2002, 6). The American Monomyth therefore serves the function in which a character in popular culture serves as a secular replacement to the Biblical Christ (ibid). What also is indicative of this supersaviour or the popular messiah is their justification for their use of violence for the greater good (5). These figures operate under a paradigm of black and white; the supersaviour is the light and good hero pitted against the bad villain. In terms of Daenerys’ character, she befits these prerequisites, but she is not wholly ‘good’ in the way she is portrayed. The constant use of warmongering imagery in her use of military might to free the slaves in Essos, and her unapologetic sexual appetites present her more as a character who operates in between the black and white paradigm, as a somewhat ‘anti-messiah’ who uses violence to fulfil and justify her noble task of freeing slaves. Constantly associated with Daenerys are the words ‘fire and blood’; words that do not necessarily match her with the image of the ‘perfect’ biblical Christ. But perhaps this is because Daenerys modernises and humanises the Christ figure of the American Monomyth concept. Therefore, this brutal side to her character is woven into the messiah rhetoric as a way of presenting a Christ figure who is flawed, humanised and relatable, thus shedding new light on the messianic individual of popular culture.

got2Fig 2: The Red Comet, seen in “The North Remembers” (2.01)

Robert Detweiler argues in his article ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’ that often in modern fiction the allegorical Christ figure offers the symbolic potential of Christ without the added implication of commitment to Christian faith (1964, 118). The likening of Daenerys Targaryen as a secular Christ figure is done implicitly in the way that the signs and symbols of the biblical messiah are translated into signs and symbols of Daenerys, the popular messiah. The first, and most obvious, of these is the Red Comet that appears in the sky soon after Daenerys successfully hatches three dragons from stone eggs (a ‘miracle’ in itself as the species were previously extinct). She even says herself in A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2): “[the comet] is the herald of my coming”. Such treatment of a comet signifying her “coming” immediately bears resemblance to the star that proclaimed the birth of Jesus Christ in the New Testament Gospels (Matthew 2.2-10, Luke 21.25). Additionally, both Daenerys and Christ are descended from a line of kings (Matthew 1), and both undergo a “resurrection”. As highlighted in Luke 24.46, there is the emphasis that the death and resurrection of the biblical Christ was foretold in the old teachings long before the coming of the messiah. Such a prophecy of the messiah has a similar treatment in the world of Game of Thrones. Mentioned numerous times in the books and in the television adaptation is the prophecy of Azor Ahai, also known as “the Lord’s chosen” and very much the Game of Thrones’ version of a prophesied messiah. According to Melisandre, a red priestess, in A Dance with Dragons, the coming of the prophesied Azor Ahai will be signified “when the red star bleeds” and this saviour will “be born again … to awake dragons out of stone”. All three of these signs occur in short succession with Daenerys walking into a burning pyre, only to be discovered the next morning sitting amongst the ashes of the fire, alive, and holding three baby dragons (fig 1), while the red comet (fig 2) appears very soon after. Though it has not been confirmed in either the books or the television series if Daenerys is in fact the prophesied Azor Ahai, she has nevertheless fulfilled these three parts to the prophecy. Regardless, the fact alone that the symbols associated with the biblical messiah are translated to symbols of Daenerys therefore provide the implication that she indeed represents a secular Christ within her own narrative.

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Fig 3: Daenerys proclaimed ‘mhysa’ (‘mother’) by the freed slaves of Yunkai in “Mhysa” (3.10)

Just as the biblical messiah’s noble task was to be a saviour to humankind, Daenerys Targaryen is again portrayed in a similar light in the way that her task to free all slaves in Slavers Bay makes her a saviour to many as a result. The aforementioned symbols of Daenerys as the popular messiah adds further justification to her role as a saviour. With three dragons in her possession, Daenerys becomes a powerful contender to those she considers her earthly enemies, in this case the slavers, and is able to wage war on them for their slaves’ freedom. In fact, this contempt for slavery is a common ideal in the Christ figure (Gunton 1985, 137, 143). This may be due to slavery often having strong connotations to sin in the Bible, particularly in the way that Jesus says in John 8.34 that mankind is “a slave to sin”. Therefore, it can be argued that Daenerys’ preoccupation with ending slavery takes a rather more literal interpretation of the biblical messiah’s task of liberating humankind from their sins. Daenerys’ resulting reputation as a saviour is best highlighted in the final scene of Game of Thrones’ third season in which she is proclaimed ‘mhysa’ by the freed slaves of Yunkai (fig. 3). The cinematography of the scene arguably bears some similarity to Jesus entering Jerusalem, declared a king (Luke 19.28-40). This image of Daenerys being surrounded by grateful slaves who declare her their “mhysa”, or “mother”, therefore provides the best visual justification as the “Breaker of Chains”, a liberator, and a saviour from “sin”.

got4Fig 4: A slave of Meereen beholds one of the many unlocked collars that Daenerys has catapulted over the city walls to show that all who follow her are freed in “Breaker of Chains” (4.03)

Hebrews 2.14-15 speaks about how Jesus Christ “shared in [mankind’s] humanity” so that “he might break the power of him who hold the power of death … and free those … held in slavery”. Therefore, Daenerys Targaryen is an equally human messiah with added flaws, and exists within the “grey areas” of the good/bad paradigm whose noble task is her attempts to liberate slaves in Essos, thus earning her a reputation as a saviour to those she frees. What further develops Daenerys as a popular messiah figure are the numerous implicit parallels of her character to the Biblical Christ of the New Testament Gospels, including messianic symbols and experiences. As a result, Daenerys Targaryen arguably serves as a secular counterpart to the Biblical Christ. But in the wide world of popular culture, Daenerys Targaryen is only one of many popular messiahs according to the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 3-5). This is perhaps because in a world that is becoming increasingly secular, popular culture is one of the ways that a secular audience may engage in religious themes. As Detweiler argues:

With the shift of interest away from religion and the relocation of values from the divine to the human sphere that have characterised the past one hundred years, the traits and mission have been transferred to man, so that for some writers the nature and intentions of Christ can be observed in any good, moral, or heroic person. (1964, 3-5)

Therefore, the American Monomyth serves to initiate a dialogue between religion and popular culture, so that readers of modern literature may learn about Jesus through a secular counterpart. Daenerys as the (theoretically) prophesied Azor Ahai parallels the Biblical prophesied messiah, just as her noble task to end slavery is a very literal adaptation of the Christ as a liberator of everyone who is a slave to sin. This is why Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen makes a great fictional, popular messiah to a secular culture seeking a saviour from the many growing tensions apparent in contemporary society.

 

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Bibliography

All references to biblical texts are taken from the NIV.

Detweiler, Robert. ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’. The Christian Scholar 47, no. 2 (1964): pp. 111-124.

Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Introduction: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places’. In Religion and Popular Culture in America: Revised Edition, edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, pp. 1-20. University of California Press, 2005.

Game of Thrones. Television Series. Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. New York, NY: HBO, 2011-present.

Gunton, Colin. ‘“Christus Victor” Revisited: A Study in the Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning’. The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): pp. 129-145.

Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Lewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire. Bantam, 1996-present.

 

 

 

 

Spotlighting student work 4: The joys of Jezebel

Today’s student offering focuses on one of the most notorious female characters in the Hebrew Bible – Jezebel. Yet, despite the fact that her name has become synonymous with woman’s wiles and wicked wantonness, very little is actually known about this biblical figure. In popular culture, however, she takes on a range of colourful afterlives, and it is one of these afterlives that our guest blogger, Charlotte Guy, explores in her essay. Charlotte is in the final semester of her Bachelor of Arts degree, where she has majored in Politics and Media Studies. After graduating with her BA, she plans to continue with postgraduate study next year, and then hopes to work in political communications.

Thanks, Charlotte, for a fascinating essay – and I’m sure you will all enjoy learning more about the enigmatic (and much maligned) Jezebel.

Andrea Celesti, Queen Jezebel being punished by Jehu (late 17th Century)
Andrea Celesti, Queen Jezebel being punished by Jehu (late 17th Century)

The Harlot Queen? Jezebel in the Bible and Popular Culture

by Charlotte Guy

Jezebel was a young Phoenician princess who appeared in 1 and 2 Kings after marrying King Ahab of Israel, and who ultimately became one of the most prominent women in the Bible. Her narrative swiftly moves from promoting deities Baal and Asherah, to persecuting prophets of YHWH, and finally fabricating evidence of blasphemy to obtain land for her husband. Eventually, she was murdered and eaten by dogs, and Jehu rejoices in the fact that no one can ever say “here lies Jezebel” (2 Kgs. 9.37), assuming “that along with her body, her name will be dispersed over the face of the earth into nothingness” (Hazleton 199). However, this was not to be. To this day, Jezebel remains notorious. She is frequently referred to as a murderer, a harlot, an enemy of God, and even the most wicked women in all of the Bible. The character of Jezebel has played a significant role in the shaping of our modern society, particularly its patriarchal nature. But great variation in her character can be seen when looking at the historical Jezebel, the biblical Jezebel, and the many Jezebels that have appeared in popular culture throughout history.

Lesley Hazleton book coverThis essay will investigate the causes and the ramifications of this variation, with a particular focus on the biblical Jezebel and Lesley Hazelton’s novel Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen. The novel draws extensively from the historical Jezebel, with Hazleton never deliberately straying from fact but rather writing using what she refers to as the “historical imagination” (23). Three gaps or grey areas in the biblical text will be explored – Jezebel’s thoughts on marrying Ahab and moving to Israel, how Jezebel’s character would be perceived by those who do not oppose her beliefs, and whether or not Jezebel is a faithful wife.

The Bible says nothing about how young Jezebel feels about moving to Israel and marrying a man she has never met. The reader is introduced to Jezebel not in her own right, but rather as a minor character in the story of Ahab – it is almost a passing comment that “he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians” (1 Kgs. 16.31). Her characteristics are hardly considered, let alone her personal thoughts. This is a very significant gap in the story, for surely before one can be condemned as “the ultimate figure of feminine evil” (Quick 44), the societal and emotional context in which they are operating must be considered. Even in modern retellings of Jezebel’s story, it is rare to see any mention of Jezebel’s feelings at the beginning of her biblical narrative.

John Liston Byam Shaw, Jezebel (19th Century)
John Liston Byam Shaw, Jezebel (19th Century)

However, Lesley Hazelton’s novel explores her internal workings in explicit detail. The story begins the night before Jezebel is to be crowned queen and officially become Ahab’s wife, and “she is not sure if this is something she wants or dreads” (Hazleton 27). The reader is told that Jezebel “has not slept through the night since she arrived in this landlocked kingdom” (Hazleton 26), that she felt like a “hostage of politics” (Hazleton 34), and that she was devastated to have been “cut off from the most sophisticated culture of her time, never to return” (Hazleton 28). Her new husband “seemed wild and savage, brutal compared to the smooth-skinned men of the Tyrian court” and “shocked Jezebel at first. Repelled her, even” (Hazleton 43). Already, her strength is showing – she resolves to “never let anyone know how much she misses” her home, Tyre. But the novel makes it clear that while she is strong, she is also a teenage girl who is alone, scared and homesick. This would almost certainly have been the case for the historical Jezebel, but the Bible is silent on the issue. Instead, all we initially know of Jezebel is how she relates to men – “the first thing we learn about Jezebel is her marriage to Ahab, and the second is her origin as a daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon” (Dutcher-Walls 24). She is essentially presented as an object in their control, and in many ways she was in her society. Lesley Hazelton’s book communicates a much more sympathetic portrayal of Jezebel than the Bible, not by changing the facts, but by presenting the emotions and societal constraints that lie behind them. This demonstrates the importance of keeping in mind “patriarchal assumptions about the story” (Quick 44) when considering the character of Jezebel in the Bible and all the representations of her that have appeared in popular culture since. Jezebel was a complex human being who faced difficulties that were factors in all of the decisions that she made, and it is important to treat her as such.

Jezebel is often depicted in pop culture as that most dangerous of creatures - the sensuous, foreign femme fatale.
‘Jezebel: The Movie’, written by Brian Godowa. Jezebel is often depicted in pop culture as that most dangerous of creatures – the sensuous, foreign femme fatale.

When telling the story of a person, it is impossible to create a perfectly factual account of their life – choices about phrasing and omissions must be made, and these choices will have ramifications. This is particularly clear in 1 and 2 Kings, where the information given about Jezebel frames her in an immensely negative light. Given the reverence in which the Bible is held, “it is easy to forget that it was written by specific men in specific times and places, for specific reasons” (Hazleton 15). The authors of Kings wished to communicate that the collapse of the Kingdom of Israel was divine punishment for being unfaithful to YHWH. Jezebel, already a “femme fatale” and “other” due to her status a powerful and foreign woman (Scholz 117), was at the centre of this issue, and was the perfect person to blame. The authors of Kings “must have counted their blessings for her very existence. If she had never lived, they would have had to invent her. And in a way, they did” (Hazleton 18). This brings to light an interesting gap in the biblical narrative – if it is the product of those who were fiercely opposed to everything Jezebel stood for, how would those who are able to view her more objectively perceive her character?

 Gustave Dore, The death of Jezebel (1866)
Gustave Dore, The death of Jezebel (1866)

The Bible makes it clear that Jezebel did have many followers, due to the mention of “the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kgs. 18.19). This is the only indication of support for her – on the whole, she is presented as purely evil. However, even in modern times of religious tolerance, where Jezebel can be viewed more objectively, it is rare to see positive depictions of her largely due to her specific acts outlined in the Bible. Catherine Quick writes that Jezebel was “a most wicked woman… so much so that even feminist readers of the Old Testament, who have quite eagerly and insightfully reexamined the stories of other Old Testament women, seem reluctant to deal with her” (44). There are two key acts that make Jezebel difficult to redeem. Firstly, she “cut off the prophets of the Lord” (King James Version, 1 Kgs. 18.4). There are multiple ways of reading this, and Jezebel did not necessarily kill any prophets, but it is widely accepted that she did. Secondly, she plotted the murder of Naboth, whose land her husband Ahab wanted – she “wrote letters in Ahab’s name… saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people: And set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die” (1 Kgs. 21.8-10). However, in Lesley Hazelton’s novel, Jezebel is cleared of both these crimes. When she ‘cuts off’ the priests, she is removing them from a treaty rather than ending their lives, and she is depicted as far too smart to have been to blame for the Naboth plot, thinking that “it would have been easier and far more elegant to produce forged papers” and that “only a rank amateur in the exercise of power would go about things so transparently” (124). It is made clear that “the fact that she was framed does not necessarily mean she was innocent” and that “she was no angel either” (Hazleton 20). But while she is not perfect, removed from the bias of Kings 1 and 2, Jezebel becomes a more realistic character, rather than merely the evil foil to Elijah’s righteousness in a biblical tale of morality.

Sins of Jezebel poster from 1953
‘Sins of Jezebel’ movie poster from 1953

The image of Jezebel as an evil woman that stems from 1 and 2 Kings has taken on a life of its own in popular culture in the three thousand years since the account was written. Today, the name is used by lingerie brands, a prominent sex-focused blog, and as an insult to suggest that a girl is sexually promiscuous. All this has occurred despite the fact that there is no mention of Jezebel behaving in a way that could be deemed sexually immoral in the Bible. She is called a harlot or whore, depending on the translation, just once, when Jehu says to Joram “what peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” (2 Kgs. 9.22). However, this was never intended as a comment on her sexual behaviour – rather her “unwavering allegiance to the Phoenician deities of her homeland renders her a harlot in the judgment of some biblical narrators and later commentators” (Everhart 688).

Jezebel pulp fiction 1963If anything, Jezebel was a particularly loyal wife in the biblical account, as evidenced by her efforts to obtain land from Naboth for her husband. Lesley Hazelton’s book does not greatly differ from the Bible in this regard, although it does go one step further in redeeming Jezebel by explicitly stating that “she was the image of sexual fidelity to her husband” and “certainly never plays the harlot” (Hazleton 19). The novel also states that the reason Jezebel “put paint on her eyes and adorned her head, and looked through a window” (2 Kgs. 9.30) in the moments before her death was purely so that she could “exit boldly, every inch a queen” (Hazleton 186). This is an important addition because Jezebel’s application of make-up prior to her death can be interpreted as an attempt at seduction, and this of course connotes sexual immorality. The image of Jezebel as a harlot demonstrates the tendency to assume sexual women are bad women and vice versa, even today. However, it is still somewhat bizarre given the lack of evidence, and it reveals how Jezebel was seemingly able to do nothing right – her whole tale was “twisted into a sequence of negatives” (McKinlay 33) even in cases where she did follow the societal expectations of her time.

Curse of Jezebel, pulp fiction from c.1963
Curse of Jezebel, pulp fiction from c.1963

After considering the stories of the historical Jezebel, the biblical Jezebel, and the Jezebel in Lesley Hazelton’s novel, it becomes clear that there is not just one Jezebel – she becomes a different person in each of her many afterlives. However, it can certainly be said that on the whole she has been treated unfairly throughout history, for while she was not perfect by any means, neither was she the irredeemably “wicked woman” she has been framed as. She was always fighting a losing battle as a young girl in a patriarchal society where her firmly-held beliefs were considered sacrilegious, and her story was told by those who were against everything she stood for and wished to use her as a tale of morality. In the thousands of years since Kings 1 and 2 were published, her reputation has suffered further damage due to the unfounded, yet widespread modern perception that she was sexually promiscuous. But along with these false perceptions, it is at least fitting that a queen of such strength has remained an iconic character for so long. It has been three thousand years since the historical Jezebel died, but thanks to her many afterlives “her spirit cannot be repressed… courageous, unbowed, and magnificent, Jezebel lives” (Hazleton 224).

Bibliography

Dutcher-Walls, Patricia. Jezebel: Portraits of a Queen. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2004.

Everhart, Janet S. “Jezebel: Framed by Eunuchs?” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72.4 (2010): 688-698.

Frost, Stanley B. “Judgment on Jezebel, or A Woman Wronged.” Theology Today  20.4 (1964): 503-517.

Hazleton, Lesley. Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007.

McKinlay, Judith E. “Eve and the Bad Girls Club.” Hecate 33.2 (2007): 31-42.

Quick, Catherine S. “Jezebel’s Last Laugh: The Rhetoric of Wicked Women.” Women and Language 16.1 (1993): 44-49.

Scholz, Susanne. Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible. New York: T&T Clark International, 2007.