- "But there are some who still keep to the Old Way, worshipping the faceless gods of the Children of the Forest and the First Men."
- ―Bran Stark
The Old Gods of the Forest, or simply the Old Gods, are a pantheon of innumerable and unnamed spirits of nature, which are worshiped by many people of the North and small numbers elsewhere in Westeros. It was once the chief religion of Westeros, but has now been supplanted by the Faith of the Seven, which was brought to the continent by the Andals. Though the two religions have coexisted for more than six thousand years, there is still tension between the most devout adherents of the two faiths.
The Old Gods were originally worshiped by the Children of the Forest, the non-human original inhabitants of Westeros, for thousands of years before the arrival of the First Men from the east twelve thousand years ago. It was the Children of the Forest who carved the faces into weirwood trees. The Children and their priests, the greenseers, successfully fought the First Men to a standstill and they signed a Pact of mutual peace and cooperation. It gave the deep forests to the children, but all other land in Westeros to the First Men, who promised never to cut down the sacred weirwood trees again. Over the following four thousand years, the First Men came to worship the Old Gods as well.
After the war against the White Walkers eight thousand years ago, the Children gradually declined throughout Westeros. The worship of the Old Gods remained strong among the First Men in Westeros until the invasion of the Andals six thousand years ago, who brought the Faith of the Seven with them from the east. The Andals slaughtered the Children of the Forest, viewing their magic as an abomination before the Seven. The Andals cut down the weirwood trees in the south, which were sacred to the Old Gods.
The Faith supplanted the worship of the Old Gods in most lands south of the Neck, but it remained strong in the North, where the First Men were able to halt the Andals' advance. After centuries of religious wars and strife, the two religions settled into a – sometimes uneasy – coexistence. In post-Conquest Westeros, there is little strife between the faiths per se, but there is some tension, since some important cultural institutions, namely Knighthood and by extension the Kingsguard, presuppose Faith in the Seven and are by technicality barred to followers of the Old Gods. This can lead to some class conflict, as knights are considered higher in the social order than equally combat capable men who are not.
The wildlings also worship the Old Gods, like their distant cousins in the North. Even in the lands of House Stark, there are a few followers of the Faith of the Seven, often southern noblewomen who come to the north to secure marriage alliances. Beyond the Wall, however, the Old Gods are the only gods.
Beliefs and Practices
The religion believes in innumerable and unnamed nature gods, the spirits of each tree, each rock, and each stream.
Worshipers of the Old Gods do not have elaborate ceremonies, holy texts, hierarchies of priests, or large structures of worship like followers of the Faith of the Seven. Instead they practice quiet contemplation in godswoods, small areas of forest which have been enclosed within a castle's walls. Worship in a godswood is centered on heart trees, which are great weirwood trees with a face carved into the bark. Weirwoods are considered sacred in the religion, and heart trees are the closest thing to a "shrine" that it possesses. Oaths and promises sworn in front of a heart tree are considered binding. The only ceremony of their religion we have seen is the ceremony of marriage, during which the bride is brought before the weirwood tree in the Godswood to beg the blessing of the Gods for her marriage.
The wildlings believe that the Gods can be heard in the sounds of nature, such as the wind, and that they can see through the eyes of the weirwood trees. So long as the trees remain in the land, the Gods have power. They also believe that the Gods hear their prayers and that they answer by sending the wind or through other means.
The faith of the Old Gods is personal and less structured than other religions, though some basic social violations are proscribed by it, such as kinslaying, incest, and bastardy. It also upholds the laws of hospitality, far more so than any other religion.
Unlike their newer counterparts, The Faith of the Seven, the Old Gods demand very little from their followers; in the words of Ned Stark to his wife Catelyn, a follower of the Seven, it's "[her] gods with all the rules". Though extremely offended by the crimes of kinslaying, incest and violation of the guest right, homosexuality is apparently not considered sinful or blasphemous.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, though the Faith of the Seven generally supplanted the Old Gods, the latter is worshipped by the northmen, crannogmen, and the free folk. There are exceptions in both cases, however. There are still several major and minor Houses in southern Westeros that worship the Old Gods, mostly in the Riverlands but fading out further away from the North. The biggest example is House Blackwood, one of the major noble Houses of the Riverlands, which continues to worship the Old Gods. Throughout the rest of Westeros one might find a scattered assortment of lesser Houses or even individual families who still keep to the Old Gods, tucked away in isolated places like mountain ranges, etc. For example, given their First Men heritage, the hill tribes of the Vale most likely worship the Old Gods.
Conversely, while most inhabitants of the North worship the Old Gods, there are a few exceptions who worship the Seven. Several centuries ago, a major House from the Reach, House Manderly, fled to the North and was rewarded with land by the Starks for their services. House Manderly continued to worship the Seven, and they are the only one of the leading noble Houses of the North to do so, but they get along well with their neighbors who worship the Old Gods. Also, noble ladies who come from the south to live in the North as part of marriage alliances may also continue to worship the Seven. This was the case with Catelyn Stark, and for Ned's love of her, he had a small sept built at Winterfell to accommodate members of her household that she brought with her, such as Septa Mordane.
The faith of the Old Gods of the Forest would appear to be a form of animism, as it lacks specific identities for any particular deity in its belief system. Polytheism, by contrast, typically encompasses a variety of particular deities with specific identities and spheres of influence, often but not always ranked by power and/or importance.
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