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- "Singers call those times the Age of Heroes. A mask for a savage world that bred savage men."
- ―Lord Roose Bolton
The Age of Heroes is an epoch in the history of Westeros. It began approximately 10,000 years ago with the sealing of the Pact, which brought about peace between the First Men and the Children of the Forest at the end of the preceding era, known as the Dawn Age. The Age of Heroes lasted for about four millennia, from the signing of the Pact until the Andal Invasion 6,000 years ago.
This age is so-named for the great heroes who were said to live at this time and perform immense deeds. Some of these heroes were ancestors and founders of later noble Houses and institutions. The history of the Age of Heroes are only remembered through myths and songs and weren't canonized in books.
During that Age, Westeros was divided in seven major regions/kingdoms. Although their names roughly correspond with what would later become the official Seven Kingdoms, their actual territory was likely quite different:
- Kingdom of the North: Its major figure was Bran the Builder, first King in the North and ancestor of the House Stark; he built The Wall and Winterfell.
- Kingdom of the Mountain and the Vale
- Kingdom of the Iron Islands: Its major figure was the Grey King, slayer of Nagga and ancestor of House Greyjoy.
- Kingdom of the Rock: The ancestral lands of House Casterly who ruled The Westerlands; this is associated with the legendary trickster Lann the Clever, ancestor of House Lannister, who swindled Casterly Rock from that House.
- Kingdom of the Reach: It contains Highgarden, built by Garth Greenhand, first King of the Reach, founder of House Gardener and ancestor of many nobles of other Houses.
- Kingdom of the Stormlands: Associated with Durran Godsgrief, the first Storm King. He married the immortal Elenei and built seven castles to defy the wrath of her divine parents, the final one being Storm's End.
- Dorne: Although Dorne was the first place that First Men touched upon when they migrated to Westeros, and the region has remained peopled the longest, it was never unified in any sense until Princess Nymeria of the Rhoynar arrived 1,000 years ago, long after the Age of Heroes.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the Age of Heroes is one of several broad eras in the history of Westeros. It was preceded by the Dawn Age, in which the First Men crossed the land bridge into Westeros, encountered the Children of the Forest, and came into conflict with them. After many centuries of warfare, the two races met on the Isle of Faces and established the Pact, which created peace between them. The Age of Heroes is commonly accepted to date from that accord, and lasted for thousands of years after it.
During this period, many petty-kingdoms rose and fell across the continent, their rulers laying the foundations for what would later become the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. A number of cultural traditions were also established during this time, many of which live on in the customs of the present-day Northmen: the laws of hospitality, guest right, and the notion that "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" all date from the Age of Heroes.
The most notable event that took place during the Age of Heroes was the Long Night, the generation-long winter that descended upon Westeros and brought the First Men and the Children of the Forest in conflict with the White Walkers. The following war claimed many lives, and the Children never truly recovered from it, but the Walkers were driven back to the far north, and the Wall was raised to bar against their potential return.
Westeros was very different during the Age of Heroes, especially when compared to the War of the Five Kings thousands of years later. Many familiar traditions and technologies currently associated with Westeros were absent during the Age of Heroes, only arriving with the Andals:
- The Faith of the Seven is specifically an Andal religion, and was not present in Westeros during the Age of Heroes.
- The Age of Heroes was essentially the Bronze Age of Westeros: The weapons and armor were of the First Men were made of bronze, as stronger iron and steel weapons were only introduced later by the Andals.
- The kings who ruled during the Age of Heroes may not have really been "kings" in the contemporary sense of the word: They were not nearly as powerful, as the lands that would later comprise the "Seven Kingdoms" each consisted a patchwork of many different petty kingdoms, all struggling for dominance.
- Some maesters theorize that "kings" in the Age of Heroes were more like the leaders of war-bands, who rallied other noble Houses in times of external threat. A "first among equals", and not really comparable to the monarchies of later eras. Even in more recent times, such during the Andal invasions 6,000 years ago, the Starks called themselves "King of Winter" (a more local title), as their hold on the North at the time was still more of a loose hegemony; their greatest rivals, the Boltons, had only recently joined the fold. Centuries afterwards, as their hold on the North tightened, the Starks shifted to calling themselves "King in the North" to emphasize their sovereign status over the entire region.
- The Andals possessed better architectural technology than the First Men, and constructed many of the larger castles now standing in Westeros. Fortifications during the Age of Heroes were generally basic ring-forts, in the style of the Fist of the First Men. A few castle sites were founded by the First Men and have been continuously inhabited and improved upon over the millennia - Winterfell, Storm's End, Casterly Rock, Pyke, Oldtown, and Highgarden - but during the Age of Heroes itself they were much smaller and humbler. Moat Cailin, strategically located at a vital choke point in the swamps of The Neck, has allegedly existed since the wars between the First Men and the Children of the Forest.
- Several major locations from the time of the War of the Five Kings did not exist exist during the Age of Heroes: Most critically, King's Landing was just three barren hills in the middle of an empty field at the mouth of the Blackwater River. The city was only built by the Targaryens 300 years ago after they conquered and unified the Seven Kingdoms. Similarly, the Targaryens' ancestral fortress on Dragonstone didn't exist yet either, as the island was only settled about 500 years ago. The construction of Harrenhal only began a generation before the Targaryen Conquest, with the final stone reportedly put in place on the very day the Targeryens first landed in Westeros. The Freys only built The Twins and became a noble House about 600 years before the present, and The Eyrie and Riverrun were built only after the Andal invasions. Also, none of the major highways, such as the Kingsroad, existed yet, as they were constructed by the Targaryens to ease travel and trade across their newly unified realm.
- Westeros has five settlements large enough to be called "cities" in the present-day: in descending order of size these are King's Landing, Oldtown, Lannisport, Gulltown in the Vale, and White Harbor in the North. Even by the end of the Age of Heroes, when the Andals first invaded, only Oldtown and Lannisport were large enough to be called "cities": King's Landing didn't exist at all, and White Harbor was just a coastal fortification called the Wolf's Den, while Gulltown was a reasonably sized and prosperous port town. When exactly Oldtown and Lannisport grew into "cities" is also unclear: Lannisport was founded many centuries after Lann the Clever died, by younger branches of the Lannister family from Casterly Rock.
- It isn't clear how much long-distance trade the First Men conducted with lands beyond Westeros, as they were not known for having a strong presence at sea (one of the reasons why they initally crossed to Westerons via the Arm of Dorne). Also, most of the other great powers of the world either did not exist yet themsleves, or were too far away for easy trade.
- The Valyrian Freehold first rose only about 5,000 years ago, when the humble shepherds of Valyria discovered and tamed dragons, then used them to conquer the rest of Essos.
- The Valyrians later settled colonies to their west which became the Free Cities, none of which existed yet during the Age of Heroes either. During this time period, the western end of Essos where the Free Cities were later located was divided between the Andals (to the north) and the Rhoynar (to the south, along the river network).
- The Dothraki hadn't yet settled in the Dothraki Sea, as they only migrated west of the Bone Mountains thousands of years later (accounts differ).
- After the Long Night, merchant ships from the Summer Islands began exploring the surrounding oceans, and it is said that they were visiting Oldtown since it was first settled (some even theorize that Oldtown began as a resupply post for Summer Islander ships).
- The civilizations of the Ghiscari Empire (based Slaver's Bay), Qarth, and Yi Ti did exist around the time of the Long Night, but they were in their infancy. The shadowbinders of Asshai, meanwhile, claim that their dark city has existed since the beginning of time, and none can prove otherwise.
- The Valyrian Freehold first rose only about 5,000 years ago, when the humble shepherds of Valyria discovered and tamed dragons, then used them to conquer the rest of Essos.
- At the time leading up to the Long Night, of course, the Wall and the Night's Watch didn't exist yet.
- The Order of Maesters did exist during the Age of Heroes - at least in some form. It originated as a guild of scholars in Oldtown, but not much is remembered about its origins beyond legends. It only developed gradually from a loose guild of court scholars into a university-like organization, and only after that developed the continent-spanning messenger-raven network.
- Very little is known about the attitudes of the First Men regarding Gender and Sexuality. In the present day, The North still follows the Old Gods of the Forest, but through cultural osmosis seems to have adopted the standards of southern Westeros, from the Faith of the Seven - daughters only inherit power after their younger brothers, and homosexuality seems to be frowned upon. Therefore, the present-day North in the time of Ned Stark probably isn't a good measure of what the ancient First Men were like. Some of the other groups that descend from the First Men, however, prominently feature female political leaders and warriors: the wildlings beyond the Wall, the Hill Tribes of the Vale, and the Crannogmen of the Neck. Counter-evidence is that the Ironborn also descend from the First Men, but are a very misogynistic culture which (barring very rare exceptions) doesn't normally have female warriors or political leaders. Whether the ancient First Men were more like the wildlings or the ironborn, or something else entirely, is unclear. Legends about the Age of Heroes don't mention female warriors or political leaders, though given that they're 8,000 years removed from the present-day, the stories might have just been distorted over the millennia. Nonetheless, the fact remains that no prominent female characters from this era have been described in any of George R.R. Martin's writings.
- The attitudes of the ancient First Men towards "homosexual behaviors" are totally unknown - even present-day Westeros under the Faith of the Seven doesn't even have a formal term "homosexuality" nor do they seem to conceive of this as an official category of persons. The Old Gods religion is said to have fewer "rules" and to be less structured than the Faith of the Seven, so there's no evidence to suggest they were less tolerant of it than in present-day Westeros (in which it is frowned upon, much like adultery, but not officially persecuted either). The wildlings beyond the Wall call themselves the "Free Folk" because their tribes won't let anyone else impose rules on them, so they may be more tolerant of it. Some evidence suggests the ironborn have a top/bottom dichotomy of sexuality, like the ancient Greeks and ancient Vikings (in which it isn't seen as unusual for one man to have sex with another man, what matters is if he's the one doing the penetrating). Ultimately, even less evidence than about powerful women exists about the attitudes of the First Men about homosexuality, one way or the other. Similarly, no homosexual characters have been described in this time period - of the few characters mentioned at all.
The Age of Heroes takes its name from the many legendary figures that lived during this time. Each of these figures performed great feats that are still talked about in the present-day, and many of the noble houses of Westeros claim descent from them:
- Bran the Builder: said to be the mastermind behind the Wall and to have raised the ancient keep of Winterfell. Allegedly, he built the Wall with the aid of the Children of the Forest and their magical powers. His name is also connected with other notable constructs, such as Storm's End and the Hightower. House Stark claims descent from him.
- Durran Godsgrief: Durran is credited with raising the mighty castle of Storm's End as a defense against the powerful winds and rains that blow up and down the coast of the Stormlands. House Durrandon, the rulers of the Stormlands before the Targaryen Conquest, claimed descent from him. In turn, House Baratheon claims descent from Durran, as Orys Baratheon married the daughter of the last Storm King after the Conquest. According to some legends, Durran was actually helped by a young Bran the Builder, before Bran went north to create Winterfell and found House Stark. Of course, many maesters doubt either of them ever existed, and even among those who do believe they were historical figures (albeit embellished by later legends), many suspect that the part about Durran knowing Bran the Builder was just an invention of later storytellers.
- Lann the Clever: a famous, golden-haired trickster who was able to swindle House Casterly out of their ancestral stronghold, Casterly Rock, though the stories of how he accomplished this feat vary widely. The stories also say that he lived for over 300 years and sired a hundred children. House Lannister claims descent from him.
- The Grey King: the first ruler of the ironborn, he slew the great sea dragon Nagga, took a mermaid as his wife and ruled for a thousand years. He also taught men how to weave nets and sails, and carved the very first longship from the wood of a demon tree. Nearly all the noble houses of the Iron Islands claim descent from him.
- Garth Greenhand: stories told of Garth say that he first taught men how to farm the land, was able to influence human fertility and reproductive cycles, and that he sired children beyond count. All the noble houses of the Reach claim descent from him in some form.
- House Gardener claimed to be descended from Garth's eldest son, known as Garth the Gardener. Eventually they unified all of the Reach under their rule and remained in power for thousands of years, but were completely wiped out during the Targaryen Conquest. House Tyrell does not claim direct male descent from the Gardeners, as they were an Andal family that came to the Reach thousands of years later - but the Tyrells did intermarry with local First Men families over the centuries, so that they claim descent from the Gardeners through the female line, and thus in turn from Garth Greenhand.
- Ellyn Ever-Sweet: The first beekeeper, she loved honey so much that she made a pact with the King of the Bees to care for all of his children. House Beesbury claims descent from her.
- Florys the Fox: A daughter of Garth Greenhand who was so cunning that she was able to keep three husbands at once, with none knowing of the others' existence. House Florent of Brightwater Keep claims descent from one of the husbands.
- Gilbert of the Vines: According to legend, it was Gilbert who first taught the men of the Arbor to make wine from the grapes that grew on the island. House Redwyne claims descent from him.
- Harlon the Hunter and Herndon of the Horn: Twin sons of Garth Greenhand. They are said to have raised the castle of Horn Hill and shared a woods witch as a wife for a hundred years, never aging as long as they bedded her every full moon. House Tarly claims descent from them.
- The Winged Knight: this ancient ruler of the Vale is said to have warred with giants, rode on the back of a giant falcon, and commanded armies of birds, among other exploits. Later histories conflated him with Artys Arryn, an Andal adventurer also known as the Falcon Knight (because of the winged helm he wore), who conquered the Vale thousands of years later. Maesters know they cannot possibly be the same person, because House Arryn wasn't even living in Westeros at the former time. For that matter, there were no "knights" in the Vale during the Age of Heroes, because Knighthood is specifically an Andal tradition that they introduced to Westeros in later ages (compare with how legends about King Arthur in Britain started out as one set of Welsh legends, but were then combined with various other legends about English and French knights over the centuries, with multiple and often conflicting versions of the narrative). Nonetheless, many legends and songs still refer to the Winged Knight as "Artys Arryn".
The Riverlands, The Crownlands, and Dorne do not have legendary founders on the scale of a Bran the Builder or Lann the Clever. While every local noble House has legends about its ancestors, these are typically small scale legends and not nearly as prominent across entire geographical regions. During the Age of Heroes, the Riverlands rarely existed as a unified kingdom, so it has no unified founder myth; the Crownlands didn't even exist until the Targaryen Conquest, when it was carved out of land that had changed ownership between many kingdoms over the centuries; and Dorne was also not unifed during the Age of Heroes, but divided up into petty kingdoms for most of its history. It was only unified about one thousand years ago when the Rhoynar under Nymeria came from Essos and forged the many kingdoms into a single principlality.
While the Age of Heroes occupies a significant place in the collective culture and history of Westeros, very little about this period can, in fact, be confirmed with any accuracy. As Samwell Tarly points out to Jon Snow, Westeros did not possess a comprehensive written language until the arrival of the Andals. The First Men did possess a system of runic script (as seen on the sigil of House Royce), and surviving examples of this script can sometimes corroborate parts of stories from the Age of Heroes. For the most part, however, these stories were passed down orally through songs and poems, which can easily change depending on circumstances, especially over a long period of time. Therefore, nearly all the information known about the Age of Heroes was written down thousands of years after the events supposedly occurred, and many of those writers were septons whose accounts were likely influenced by their religious beliefs.
In such circumstances, the existence the legendary progenitors of various noble houses, or the occurrence of cataclysmic events such as the Long Night, cannot be conclusively proven, despite the importance they hold in the collective psyche of Westeros. By the same token, this lack of first-hand evidence (or simply the many thousands of years that have passed since) is one reason why some Westerosi believe the Long Night never occurred in the first place.
The legendary figures from the Age of Heroes share many of their traits with real-life culture heroes. Appearing in mythologies and histories from around the world, these archetypal figures - such as the Greek Prometheus, the West African Ananse, and the Polynesian Maui - usually contribute highly important technologies or traditions to a particular group, often very early in that group's history. Everything from agricultural techniques to the invention of language and writing have been attributed to culture heroes.
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