The Great Stallion (Dothraki: Vezhof) is a horse god worshipped by the Dothraki, mirroring the importance of horses in that culture. The religious beliefs of the Dothraki are complex, as there is little division in Dothraki society between what in other cultures might be called "religion" and "custom".
The Dothraki acknowledge the existence of other supernatural beings or spirits besides the Great Stallion, but it would be incorrect to describe them as polytheistic. Rather, Dothraki religious beliefs are best described as "henotheism" - the belief in and worship of a single deity (the Great Stallion), but accepting the existence of other deities who may or may not be worshiped. These other deities may only have power in specific localities. For example, the Dothraki do not revere or worship the Great Shepherd, the deity of the Lhazareen who live beyond the southern border of the Dothraki Sea. However, they do not deny that the Great Shepherd may exist, they just think its power is only strongest in Lhazar, and even then, that the Great Stallion is assuredly a stronger god than the Great Shepherd, in all times and places.
This belief system is evidenced in the Dothraki language itself: when planning an invasion of Westeros, Khal Drogo declares, "Anha aqorisok chiories mori, vazzafrok yal mori, ma afichak vojjor samva Vaesaan Dothrak!" ("I will rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak!"). The word for "gods" which Khal Drogo uses, "vojjor", literally means "statues" - this word can refer to ordinary statues and sculptures, but can equally mean "gods", depending on context (similar to how the English word "idols" can literally refer to statues, but may also have religious connotations). As the Dothraki conceive it, every nation or people have their own "idols" or "gods", but the Great Stallion is the best one, and the only one they pray to. By physically capturing or destroying the religious idols of another people's gods, they believe they are defeating those gods.
The Dothraki believe that the stars in the night sky are the fiery khalasar of the Great Stallion. They also believe that when they die, their soul will ride with their ancestors in the Night Lands, though only if their bodies are properly burned. Burning a Dothraki's body allows their ashes to rise up to the heavens, where their spirit will join the fiery khalasar of the Great Stallion.
In Dothraki belief, the moon is said to be a goddess and the wife of the sun, apparently part of the starry khalasar of the Great Stallion. This also indicates that the Dothraki conceptualize the moon as female and the sun as male.
Children are considered "blessings from the Great Stallion".
The Dothraki are a very brave but also a very superstitious people, believing in any number of signs and omens. A Dothraki khalasar will not go to war until the omens favor it, even if to all outside observers the time seems perfect to strike. Although they will honor agreements they have made, it widely known that the Dothraki "do things in their own time", waiting for favorable omens."
The Dothraki religion does not include any restrictions on their lifestyle of pillaging surrounding peoples, killing their men, and raping their women. Nor do there seem to be rules against one Dothraki khalasar fighting another and enslaving the survivors. A successful warrior and mounted raider is highly esteemed.
The closest thing to a priesthood that the Dothraki have are the honored wise-women known as the dosh khaleen, crones who are widows of deceased khals. The dosh khaleen dwell in the only city of the Dothraki, Vaes Dothrak, located deep within the Dothraki Sea. They conduct many religious rituals, interpret all manner of omens, and are held to possess great powers of prophesy.
Carrying a sword or shedding blood within Vaes Dothrak is considered sacrilege, though should the need arise, loopholes such as strangling or burning a man to death are permissible.
The traditional Dothraki wedding ceremony is a daylong feast in which gifts are presented to the new couple. Displays of personal combat, duels to the death, and wild public orgies are commonplace at such a feast. A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair. Because the Dothraki spend most of their time riding on the open plains, everything of importance in Dothraki culture is done outdoors under the sky. Thus, on their wedding night, a Dothraki couple rides away from the main camp to the open plains, and consummate their marriage under the stars.
The Dothraki traditionally burn their dead in funeral pyres, so that their spirit may go on to the Night Lands. It is considered a terrible dishonor not to burn a dead Dothraki. The prospect of insects and worms eating through their corpse until it decomposes to nothing but bones is considered quite horrifying. Desecrating a corpse by dismembering or decapitating it, as one would cut up an animal, then leaving the individual pieces to rot, is considered tantamount to killing the dead person's soul itself.
Henotheism in real-life
In real-life, henotheism is a transitional stage between polytheism and strict monotheism. It can be observed in early, pre-Babylonian Captivity Judaism and other early Canaanite religions. Examples include when the prophet Elijah engaged in a contest with the priests of the false god Baal, or when Moses' staff turned into a snake, and the Egyptian pharaoh also turned his staff into a snake, but Moses's snake ate his. In both cases, the god of Israel is shown to be more powerful than any other local deity, but "defeating" a false god is tacit admission that they exist. Strict monotheism was only embraced after the Babylonian Captivity. Even then, it is something of a spectrum, as even modern Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) still acknowledge the existence of "angels" as supernatural beings, but which are mere agents of the monotheistic God.
When asked if the Dothraki were monotheistic or polytheistic, language consultant and creator of the Dothraki language David J. Peterson responded:
- "The Dothraki religion is, of course, up to George R.R. Martin. I've tried to encode it the best I can in the Dothraki language, to the extent that there’s material available. I believe that there's a lot to back up the point of view that the Dothraki believe that other gods may, in fact, exist, and that by stealing and destroying their statues, they are defeating them. (This type of belief was quite common to many ancient peoples in our world.) This was actually the inspiration for the word for "deity" in Dothraki, which is the same as the word for "statue" [vojjor].
- That said, I don’t think this is tantamount to saying the Dothraki are polytheistic. Though they believe that these gods are real, they’re not their gods, if that makes sense, and I haven’t seen evidence in the books of any other god but the Great Horse God, which Dany prays to at one point. They refer to the moon as a goddess (the wife of the sun), but I'm not sure that’s enough to say that they worship the moon and sun as personified gods."
When the term "henotheism" was subsequently pointed out to Peterson, he said that this matched his earlier observation (that "this type of belief was quite common to many ancient peoples in our world") and he responded, "I think that rather hits the nail on the end. Again, we’d need to wait for confirmation from GRRM, but that gels with my interpretation."
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the horse god of the Dothraki is referred to as just the Horse God, not the Great Stallion.
The Dothraki believe that the first human in the world emerged from the Womb of the World lake near Vaes Dothrak, while riding the first horse, a thousand years ago. The dating of this isn't plausible as, unknown to the Dothraki, the civilizations on Westeros, and in the Valyrian Freehold, have written histories dating back roughly six thousand years.
Season 2 of the TV series mentions that decapitating or dismembering a body and leaving the pieces to rot is a desecration tantamount to killing the soul itself. In the books, the Dothraki have special riders known as jaqqa rhan ("Mercy Men") who after battles ride around the field decapitating the dead and dying. It is unclear how to reconcile Irri's distress over Rakharo's decapitation in Season 2 with the customs of the jaqqa rhan. Given that Khal Drogo's earlier threat focused on leaving his opponent's body to rot, and didn't mention decapitating him, it's possible that the main horror of what happened to Rakharo was that his head was left to rot: the jaqqa rhan apparently take heads as a prelude to burning the body.
When asked about this, David J. Peterson explained that the jaqqa rhan decapitate fallen enemies, and thus there is no contradiction:
- "I don’t see anything that needs to be reconciled. All of the facts you mentioned seem to sit perfectly well together, as I see it. Where there may be confusion is the jaqqa rhan who, as far as I know, ride through the enemy lines and kill those yet alive, not their own lines."
- David J. Peterson's blog, Dothraki.com, April 16, 2012
- David J. Peterson's blog, Dothraki.com, September 14, 2012
- "The Night Lands"
- "The Kingsroad"
- "Lord Snow"
- "A Golden Crown"
- "You Win or You Die"
- "Winter Is Coming"
- "The Pointy End"
- "The Night Lands"
- David J. Peterson's blog, Dothraki.com, September 17th, 2013.