Thalia Sutton is an independent scholar and writer of fiction. She holds a Master’s in East Asian Studies from Columbia University in the City of New York, and is delighted every time a form has a box allocated in which to check “Master” as her legal title.
Welcome to the second installment of the Greek Myth in The Game of Thrones series. (Caution! Spoilers through A Song of Ice and Fire book 3!)
George R. R. Martin takes the tropes from his source material and twists them. So: if Cersei, as Hera, finally offed her philandering husband, what spin does Martin give Cersei as Venus?
Cersei as Aphrodite
That’s right: Aphrodite, goddess of beauty. Many characters in Martin’s series are a combination of multiple ancient characters. Make no mistake; Cersei fills the roles of both Aphrodite and Hera. It’s a thrilling twist: The big kahoona of female terror, beauty, and cruelty in Game of Thrones, Cersei would appear to be about 75% Beauty and 25% Wifehood.
It was described to me at a talk at Columbia University in 2010 that “the Greek gods are paradoxes.” Aphrodite is a goddess of beauty, but is cruel; Zeus is the god of vows, but does not keep his word to Hera; Hera is the overseer of wifehood, but kills her husband’s children; Eros is the god of love, but is never touched — and so on.
Cold, cruel, blonde, physically beautiful, and head of the most powerful house on Olympus, Aphrodite actually controls more hordes than Zeus; all the beautiful people, basically, are her underlings. She’s also, famously, birthed from the sea, and has a spot on the Olympic Council along with Hera (Matrimony) and Demeter (Harvest/Earth). Cersei Lannister, Queen, is cold, cruel, blonde, and beautiful; from Casterly Rock (by the sea), land of gold; and overseer of the most numerous and naturally-gorgeous family in all the Seven Kingdoms, the fair-haired Lannisters. Cersei is certainly our Aphrodite. (But wait, you say, she isn’t in control of the family; Tywin is! He’s not at first, when he’s absent from King’s Landing. In the first book and a half, she sits prettily on top of the entire Lannister tower, just like Aphrodite.)
Cersei’s spot on the small Council is emblematic. Given the misogynistic society rightly portrayed in A Song of Ice and Fire, it would have been perfectly believable, if unexceptional, to have Cersei barred from Small Council activities. However, as a Hera figure, she’s there implicitly; and as an Aphrodite figure, she owns it — she tells everyone what to do, via threats of her son’s inescapable and notorious wrath.
Jaime as Ares
With Cersei firmly established as our Aphrodite, do we see her consort and her glut of poorly-parented, fair-haired children? Why yes, we do!
Aphrodite’s favorite male to take to bed is Ares, the god of bloodlust. Jaime’s personal storyline is about a man who feels alive only in battle, and who did one deed that no one will ever forgive him for (typical of Greek tragedies). This is a dead ringer for an Ares-inspired character; but. the cinch of the knot is that he has an affair with our Aphrodite character, Cersei, and fathers her spate of principal children.
Ares is the father, usually, of all of Aphrodite’s principal brood, with at least one of them fathered while she is (forcibly) married to someone she detests. She’s the ultimate trophy wife, but one who wants to stay single forever. Aphrodite was married to her husband for no other reason than being too powerful in her own right, and wanting to be free. (And the real-life Greek patriarchy saying marriage could be a proper punishment to control strong women, and a proper reward for a man who helped you in an armed conflict (i.e., an alliance tool, Cersei’s marriage to Robert). All of this seems quite ingrained in Robert and Cersei’s story.
Ares is the kingdom’s most powerful combatant and nothing too hard on the eyes, so he fears no societal punishment nor battle. Like Ares, Jaime’s life is propped up by glory he can win in war, but in peacetime, he is ridiculed and scorned, public opinion favoring those of more artistic graces. The mythological Ares never improves, but Jaime, put into a situation where he has to reassess himself, finds that there are other things in life beyond the rush of clarity and adrenaline in battle, if he can just open his eyes, and his heart, to the real world, and not be stuck in the world he grew up in. Here we see the “consequences of war,” both personal and societal, playing out, as Martin expressed in the Academy interview. And the great twist in this tale is that Ares becomes a decent guy, and it takes Aphrodite much longer to see the forest for the trees. Again, Martin takes our expectations, and our society’s tropes, and in a fit of multifaceted character writing, turns them into valuable reading.
Tywin Lannister as Uranus
An argument can be made that the indomitable, infamous, and stone-faced Tywin Lannister is Poseidon — the man who appears off and on as the second-hand of Zeus, and who doesn’t ask to overthrow him. There is an aquatic theme to the Lannisters that doesn’t have to be there (Casterly Rock could have been inland); and, like Aphrodite, Poseidon has huge hordes of sub-deities. True to Tywin’s nature with his armies as he battles Robb Stark, he is also the “Earth Shaker” — the maker of earthquakes. However, where Tywin may be the ill-mannered Poseidon on the battlefield, at home, analysis finds he fits more comfortably with Uranus, the tyrant father to rule them all.
Now, Tywin is just so wonderfully real as a person that I feel the need to identify him with myth is minimal. However, just to round out the family tree, let us take a look at this: both Zeus and Zeus’s father (Kronos) committed patricide when they couldn’t stand being stunted any longer under the shadow of their father’s influence (Uranus is Kronos’s father). Zeus’s words bill Kronos and Uranus both as great tyrants, who jealously and unjustly kept their children from growing up. Tywin is the ultimate domineering father in Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion’s lives — but in an amusing twist, he’s not often in the wrong for it when policy is concerned. He leaves death, destruction, and order in his wake (and chaos for his enemies); these are all good things, especially by Ancient Greek standards. It’s only in his children that he has resistance.
It’s the ultimate commentary on Greek myth: Uranus, who kills all his children (Kronos merely ate them, storing them away), really might have known what he was doing as a ruler, and the impudent youngins that overthrow him really are just juvenile, emotionally-stunted, privileged screw-ups that don’t know what they’re doing, and fight with each other all the time as a matter of policy. Like Uranus and Kronos, this lack of proper parenting on Tywin’s part causes the resulting mess when the children overthrow him and attempt to play the game of regency, just as a good Greek tragedy of inescapable determinism would have it. Considering the patricidal way Tywin goes, the connection to Uranus and Kronos, rather than Poseidon, seems viable.
So, of Kronos and Uranus, why the latter? Uranus slunk off into the background with the Titans when Kronos took over. But he came back with his armies when Zeus took over, and Zeus quickly ended that by killing the Titans in a great war, the Titanomachy. It was a war which he would not have won had he not stolen the magical nuke — the thunderbolt — out from under Kronos’s allies. At the end of the war, Zeus cut off Uranus’s testicles and threw them in the sea, so that Uranus would no longer be a threat; from that sprang Aphrodite. So yes: Cersei is forever Tywin’s bane, and in the most wonderful way is the result of Tywin’s own castration by Robert Baratheon’s rebellion.
Gregor Clegane as a Titan
As a special bonus to all of you who’ve stuck with me this far, here’s a look at Gregor Clegane. If you’re Uranus, and the generation below you rebels, what army do you muster to stop them? Why, Titans of course — beasts the size of mountains, too wild to control. “The Mountain that Rides” is your Titan, Game of Thrones readers. Though he also reminds me way too much of Rasputin.
This Series comes in 8 parts:
1. Introduction; Robert and Cersei as Zeus and Hera (spoilers through book 1)
2. Cersei, Jaime, as Aphrodite, Ares; Tywin Lannister and Gregor Clegane as Uranus and a Titan (spoilers through book 3)
3. Joffery, Myrcella, and Tommen as Eros, Harmonia, and Anteros (spoilers through book 3)
4. Tyrion as Odysseus (Spoilers through book 3)
5. Sansa as Psyche; Lysa Arryn and son as Demeter and Persephone; Littlefinger as Hermes (Spoilers through book 3)
6. Loras and Renly as Achilles and Patroclus (Spoilers through book 1)
7. Brienne and Margaery as Briseis and Helen of Troy (Spoilers through book 2)
8. Stannis and Renly as Apollo and Dionysus; Stannis’s Crew as Daedalus, Icarus, and Cassandra (Spoilers through book 2)