Part 1 of Queen’s Crown, Queen’s Justice, Video Essay is available on YouTube
To say that a fog of mystery surrounds the key events of Planetos would be an understatement. Much ink, sweat, tears, and metaphorical blood has been spilled discussing the Long Night, Azor Ahai, Nissa Nissa, and Lightbringer. The release of The World of Ice and Fire granted a boon to A Song of Ice and Fire fans the world over, and many see in the story of the Amethyst Empress, the Bloodstone Emperor, and the Blood Betrayal a potential echo of or actual historical event with which to connect the story of Azor Ahai, myself included.
The Bloodstone Emperor could be ground zero for the Azor Ahai monomyth, making Nissa Nissa and the Amethyst Empress the same historical figure. However, that’s not necessary for what follows to make sense. For the purposes of this essay series, I will be discussing the Amethyst Empress as a distinct archetypal figure from Nissa Nissa. Although Amethyst Empress symbolism exists alongside and intertwines with other forms of Nissa Nissa symbolism, it has its own cluster of motifs and imagery that can be explored for the most part on their own.
For the myth heads reading this, you might be asking why I would separate the overlapping imagery. But Gretchen, you might be saying, the mythological tapestry! It’s all connected! And that’s true, but my goal is to make the discussion of dispossessed women in A Song of Ice and Fire accessible to those not so steeped in symbolic analysis. Because when it comes down to it, I believe the theme of disinherited women transcends the monomyth. It’s part of the mythological weave, of course, but it’s also more than cool worldbuilding. It touches on real world experiences of misogyny, sexism, and disempowerment, and what I see to be Martin’s overarching anti-patriarchal message.
I’m walking a fine line here of trying to bridge symbolic analysis while building a case for the thematic implications of Martin’s storytelling. I hope to not get so lost in the weeds that I don’t lose the newbies and non-myth heads, and I’ll make sure to provide links wherever possible for those of you who want to dive more into symbolism. (Jump in! The waters of the great green sea are warm. And we have great parody songs.) For the myth heads, I promise I will eventually circle back around to some deeper dives into symbolic overlap once I have explored the Amethyst Empress in her own right. Don’t worry, I have a plan and an outline. With lots of notes. Lots and lots of notes.
Getting back to what this is all about, what interests me about the Amethyst Empress is her being a usurped queen, the rightful heir to the throne who was displaced by a jealous male relative. This is a facet of the monomyth I haven’t seen discussed, yet it’s a key aspect of every female POV character in the series. As with the other symbolic archetypes Martin utilizes, her story not only informs our understanding of Planetos’ history but our understanding of the present-day characters and their hearts in conflict.
The Usurped Empress
So who was the Amethyst Empress? She’s never mentioned in the book series proper, so readers of only the books would have no knowledge of this ancient figure. This is what The World of Ice and Fire has to say:
Dominion over mankind then passed to his eldest son, who was known as the Pearl Emperor and ruled for a thousand years. The Jade Emperor, the Tourmaline Emperor, the Onyx Emperor, the Topaz Emperor, and the Opal Emperor followed in turn, each reigning for centuries…yet every reign was shorter and more troubled than the one preceding it, for wild men and baleful beasts pressed at the borders of the Great Empire, lesser kings grew prideful and rebellious, and the common people gave themselves over to avarice, envy, lust, murder, incest, gluttony, and sloth.
When the daughter of the Opal Emperor succeeded him as the Amethyst Empress, her envious younger brother cast her down and slew her, proclaiming himself the Bloodstone Emperor and beginning a reign of terror. He practiced dark arts, torture, and necromancy, enslaved his people, took a tiger-woman for his bride, feasted on human flesh, and cast down the true gods to worship a black stone that had fallen from the sky. (Many scholars count the Bloodstone Emperor as the first High Priest of the sinister Church of Starry Wisdom, which persists to this day in many port cities throughout the known world).
In the annals of the Further East, it was the Blood Betrayal, as his usurpation is named, that ushered in the age of darkness called the Long Night. Despairing of the evil that had been unleashed on earth, the Maiden-Made-of-Light turned her back upon the world, and the Lion of Night came forth in all his wroth to punish the wickedness of men.—The World of Ice and Fire, The Great Empire of the Dawn
To fans of Tolkien who have read The Silmarillion, this tale should sound familiar, as it mirrors that of Tar-Míriel, daughter of the 24th king of Númenor, Tar-Palantir. Tar-Míriel whose name means “Jewel Daughter” in Quenya (one of the languages Tolkien developed for his series), was Tar-Palantir’s only child, and by the Númenorean Law of Succession she ought to have inherited her father’s throne as queen. However, a jealous male cousin, Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, forcibly took her to wife and seized the throne for himself, changing her name to Ar-Zimraphel to match his own Adûnaic name. Pharazôn’s pride led to him challenging Sauron for control of Middle Earth. Sauron feigned humility and was taking captive, only to bring about the downfall of Númenor when he tempted Pharazôn into pursuing immortality by attacking Valinor, the realm of the gods. The gods, called the Valar, threw Númenor into the sea in an Atlantis-like cataclysm, and Pharazôn and his fleet of ships attempting to sail to Valinor were pulled into a chasm that opened up in the sea. On Númenor, Tar-Míriel tried to reach the pinnacle of the highest mountain before the island sank, but waves overtook her and she drowned.
A jealous male relative usurps a female heir, only to bring about his own death, the destruction of a kingdom, and a global cataclysm that drowned islands? And the usurped queen drowns while the king is literally pulled into the underworld? Huh. Interesting. Hat tip to Tolkien myth head Blue Tiger for the Silmarillion connection.
To put it in broad terms, the Amethyst Empress archetype is that of a female heir of a ruling house, family, or clan and/or ruler herself whose male relative, an Azor Ahai type figure, usurps and/or kills her to gain power or access to something beyond his reach.
As with all of Martin’s symbolic archetypes, the exact details vary with each character who embodies this archetype, as we’ll see. The male relative can be a brother, a husband, a son, or a father, and sometimes more than one male usurper figures into her story. Sometimes her death is literal, at times symbolic, and others prophesied but not yet fulfilled.
Her usurpation presages a time of strife or war—though the chaos need not be directly caused by it—and dark arts, necromancy, blood drinking or cannibalism may come into play. We ought to also pay attention to colors like opal or white, amethyst or other purple shades, black, red, and especially green and gold in conjunction with red, as the gem bloodstone is red and green, often with bands of gold. The mention of a ‘tiger-woman’ as a bride ought to bring to mind the Children of the Forest with their cat eyes and dappled skin. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, if we find Weirwood Goddess and Cat Woman Nissa Nissa symbolism in situations where we have Amethyst Empress language.
If I can make a brief aside here for the non-mythical astronomy crowd, what I mean by ‘cat woman Nissa Nissa’ is that Nissa Nissa may have been a Child of the Forest or a half-human, half-Child of the Forest hybrid of some kind. When we read about the Children of the Forest in The World of Ice and Fire and the book series itself, they seem to have a lot of cat symbolism, especially those slitted, gold, cat-like eyes of theirs. So if the Children of the Forest are symbolically cats and Nissa Nissa was a Child of the Forest or a hybrid, then just call her Selena Kyle because she’s a cat-woman! Her death also seems to be somehow connected to the weirwood trees. Where we see other female figures connected to weirwood trees, they seem to act as a kind of vengeful death goddess, which is where the Weirwood goddess idea comes in. Just think Arya in the Harrenhal godswood practicing her ‘needlework’ while reciting her list of names.
Thanks for bearing with that little trip into symbolism land, now back to the Amethyst Empress.
The power gained by her usurpation may be magical or socio-political, or it may be power in a more conceptual sense, that of knowledge. If the root (pun intended) of the Nissa Nissa monomyth regarding ‘stealing the fire of the gods’ is gaining access to the weirwood net—a repository of mundane and arcane knowledge—we can see how such knowledge or power could be symbolically represented as political rule. They’re both kinds of power that give one authority and control over others. Just ask Petyr Baelish,
Everyone wants something, Alayne. And when you know what a man wants you know who he is, and how to move him.—A Storm of Swords, Sansa VI
Knowledge gives one power and control, just as being a king or queen does. Petyr himself is attempting to wield just as much if not more power than the ones seated on the Iron Throne, a kind of shadow king if you will and an Azor Ahai figure as well as an all-around creeper. He does not just want to play the game of thrones, he wants to win it. In other words, he wants to rule it.
Thus, we should not be surprised if Martin represents the acquisition of knowledge in terms of socio-political power or vice versa. In fact, the Bloodstone Emperor both gained secret knowledge and stole his sister’s throne, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Born To Rule
All of the female POV characters in A Song of Ice and Fire are, according to the laws of absolute primogeniture, the rightful heirs to their respective houses. Now, I know that most of Westeros, excepting Dorne, doesn’t follow absolute primogeniture—the system of inheritance whereby the firstborn child, regardless of anatomy or gender presentation, inherits the father’s seat. Instead, Westeros follows male preference primogeniture, also called agnatic primogeniture. Rather than the firstborn child, it is the firstborn son who inherits. Should there be no male heirs, an uncle or male cousin is preferred to a female child. Moreover, as a patriarchal culture, a female heir in Westeros who weds forfeits any authority she could inherit in the absence of a ‘more suitable’ male relative to her (presumably) male spouse.
Case in point, in A Clash of Kings Sansa becomes Robb’s de facto heir with the presumption of Bran and Rickon’s death and in the absence of any Robb having a male child. When Dontos meets her in the godswood to convince her to run away with him, the following conversation takes place.
“I will be safe in Highgarden. Willas will keep me safe.”
“But he does not know you,” Dontos insisted, “and he will not love you. Jonquil, Jonquil, open your sweet eyes, these Tyrells care nothing for you. It’s your claim they mean to wed.“
“My claim?” She was lost for a moment.
“Sweetling,” he told her, “you are heir to Winterfell.” He grabbed her again, pleading that she must not do this thing, and Sansa wrenched free and left him swaying beneath the heart tree. She had not visited the godswood since.
But she had not forgotten his words, either. The heir to Winterfell, she would think as she lay abed at night. It’s your claim they mean to wed. Sansa had grown up with three brothers. She never thought to have a claim, but with Bran and Rickon dead . . . It doesn’t matter, there’s still Robb, he’s a man grown now, and soon he’ll wed and have a son. Anyway, Willas Tyrell will have Highgarden, what would he want with Winterfell?—A Storm of Swords, Sansa II
While Sansa may not understand the political importance of Winterfell, she understands that should Robb have a child, she would have no claim to Winterfell. In fact, so foreign is the idea of her being in the line of succession that she must be told that she is in fact his heir by Dontos. We get the gist of the Westerosi system of inheritance in the very first book of the series when Ned talks to Arya in King’s Landing after they receive news of Bran waking up from his coma,
Arya cocked her head to one side. “Can I be a king’s councilor and build castles and become the High Septon?”
“You,” Ned said, kissing her lightly on the brow, “will marry a king and rule his castle, and your sons will be knights and princes and lords and, yes, perhaps even a High Septon.”
Arya screwed up her face. “No,” she said, “that’s Sansa.” She folded up her right leg and resumed her balancing. Ned sighed and left her there.—A Game of Thrones, Eddard V
Women cannot be lords or queens themselves, but they can be the mother to knights and princes and lords and, yes even a High Septon, as consolation for being disempowered.
Always a Dragon Princess, Never a Dragon Queen
A great place to start with the Amethyst Empress type characters is perhaps the most well-known of historical women refused the right to rule despite being her father the king’s named heir: Rhaenyra, the so called “Half Year Queen,” whose inheritance of the throne marked the beginning of the war known as the Dance of Dragons.
The first-born child of King Viserys I, Rhaenyra was the only child of his first marriage to Aemma Arryn. When Rhaenyra was eight, Aemma died giving birth to her second child, a son name Baelon who died a day later. Viserys immediately declared Rhaenyra his heir and made all the lords in the Seven Kingdoms swear fealty to her and promise to protect her birthright as his heir. A year later he remarried and his new wife Alicent Hightower had two sons, Aegon and Aemond, yet Rhaenyra remained Viserys’ heir and princess of Dragonstone until his death. He even named her his heir in his will.
Nevertheless, Hand of the King Otto Hightower, Alicent’s father, and Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Criston Cole, defied Viserys’ wishes and proclaimed Alicent’s son Aegon king instead. At the time of Viserys’ death, Rhaenyra was heavily pregnant with her sixth child and the news didn’t reach her until her allies in King’s Landing were imprisoned by the usurpers. Ser Steffon Darklyn of the Kingsguard, one of her allies, joined her on Dragonstone where she held her own coronation.
I won’t go into a full blow by blow of the Dance, which you can read in the worldbook, but there are several significant elements to the story when it comes to her being an Amethyst Empress figure. First, she did sit the Iron Throne, ruling for half a year in Kings Landing. Many claimed, in hindsight that they saw the throne cutting her, causing her to bleed all over the weirwood Iron Throne. Second, she was deemed “Maegor with teats”—a derogation for her supposed cruelty, making her a maligned woman. And if you’re thinking of Cersei being “Tywin with teats,” then you’re on the right track.
Third, prior to the Dance, Viserys’ wife Alicent wanted to wed Rhaenyra to her eldest son Aegon, meaning that the man who usurped Rhaenyra was both half-brother and would-be husband. No doubt Alicent’s intent in proposing the marriage was to find a way to get her son on the throne given that Viserys had declared Rhaenyra his heir and at the time, all the realm had vocally declared to support his daughter’s claim upon his death. Thus Alicent and Aegon had been planning to usurp Rhaenyra’s inheritance for years.
Nevertheless, the official histories dub Rhaenyra the usurper despite the fact that she had been the named heir for decades, the princess of Dragonstone, the named heir in her father’s will, and the lords had promised her father to support her claim. Unfortunately, the winners write the history books, and since the winners were Targaryen male heirs, her being maligned and mislabeled a usurper despite being the true heir should come as no surprise.
Usurper King Aegon II is also directly responsible for Rhaenyra’s death. After growing ‘grey and haggard’ in exile and forced to sell her crown, Rhaenyra sails back to Dragonstone and is betrayed by Ser Alfred Broome. He slew her queensguard and handed her over to Aegon, who fed her to his dragon Sunfyre. That’s right, Sunfyre.
Sunfyre the Golden, the ‘dragon of the golden dawn,’ and a ‘great golden wyrm’ who breathed golden flame and whose scales shone like molten gold in sunlight. Sunfyre who died after a stunning Mythical Astronomy dragon battle with the pale green dragon Moondancer and after devouring Queen Rhaenyra. According to Archmaester Gyldayn, Sunfyre was the most beautiful dragon to ever live, and he was elsewhere called,
“[A] splendid creature with gleaming golden scales and pale pink wing membranes”—The Princess and the Queen
A fitting mount to solar King Aegon II. Likewise, in true solar king fashion, Aegon II married his full sister Helaena, wielded the Valyrian steel sword Blackfyre, and took as his personal sigil a golden dragon in honor of Sunfyre instead of the traditional Targaryen red. He also had several paramours and fathered multiple bastards, giving us Garth the Green the lusty and horned King symbolism. Aegon’s supporters were also called the ‘greens,’ meaning we have red, green, and gold as symbolic colors associated with our Bloodstone Emperor figure. Perfect.
During the battle against Rhaenys, Aegon received the significant burned arm injury we see with Jon, Victarion, Quentyn, and others. Moreover, during the fight against Moondancer and her rider Baela Targaryen, Aegon fell from Sunfyre, shattering both of his legs. This gives him the ‘crippled’ greenseer symbolism we see with Bran and Tyrion, as well as calling to mind kings and lords who are too fat to walk, like Aegon IV, Illyrio, Wyman Manderly, and to an extent, Robert Baratheon.
Not long after killing Rhaenyra, Aegon met his own end. After being carried to his chamber, he was also given a cup of poisoned wine to soothe his pain and later was found dead with blood on his lips, giving us blood-drinking and bloody mouth symbolism as the usurper king dies.
Aegon’s brother was Aemond One-eye, giving us Odin symbolism. Not only that, Aemond replaced his missing eye with a sapphire, reminding us of Symeon Star-Eyes and the blue star/sapphire-eyed Others. In other words, there’s a whole lot of Azor Ahai symbolism around Aegon II and his brother that is just begging to be unpacked, but that’s another essay altogether.
Note that each party, the ‘blacks’ who supported Rhaenyra and the ‘greens’ who supported Aegon/Alicent, had members of the Kingsguard on their side. One of her white queensguard Knights was Erryk Cargill, twin brother to Arryk Cargill who sided with Aegon. Under orders from Ser Criston and Aegon, Arryk infiltrated Dragonstone disguised as his twin brother Erryk, intent on killing either Rhaenyra, her children, or both. Arryk met his twin Erryk in the halls and the two fought to the death.
The symbolism of twin brothers on opposite sides in a war reinforces the brother from an Other mother symbolism Lucifer Means Lightbringer has noted in his series on the Blood of the Other. In fact, Arryk and Erryk might well be the clearest depiction of warring kingsguard Others and their black brothers of the Nights Watch in Martin’s histories. Arryk is a member of usurper king Aegon’s kingsguard. Erryk serves in Rhaenyra’s queensguard, and is a member of the ‘blacks’, making him a symbolic black brother to white kingsguard Arryk.
As former members of Viserys kingsguard who chose to support Rhaenyra, her queensguard would be considered defectors and turncloaks, especially by those who joined the winning side by supporting Aegon’s claim. And who do we find in Dany’s queensguard but Barristan Selmy, a former kingsguard member who had been stripped of his white cloak in order to put a more supportive member of the current king in his place by Queen Cersei and usurper king Joffrey. Does this mean that our green zombie Last Hero and his band of twelve green zombie Night’s Watch members were aligned with the Amethyst Empress? It’s an intriguing thought, and one to keep in mind as we dig into the other Amethyst Empress characters.
As for Rhaenyra, all is not lost for the usurped queen and her line. Ultimately, the usurper king Aegon II dies without male issue and Rhaenyra’s children by her second husband Daemon Targaryen, Aegon III and Viserys II each have a turn ruling the Iron Throne. So, while she was denied her inheritance and usurped and killed by her younger half-brother, her children eventually restored her line to the throne. Another intriguing line of inquiry we’ll have to keep in mind.
So, in Rhaenyra we have a queen who is usurped by her younger half-brother, a dragon person named Aegon and both a Bloodstone Emperor and solar king figure. Prior to killing her, he slays her white queensguard knights, among whom is black brother Erryk who was killed by his own twin brother, a white kingsguard knight who served the usurper king. Rhaenyra dies by being consumed by the king’s dragon Sunfyre. Less than a year later, the usurper king is poisoned and dies with a bloody mouth.
Good lord. I mean, really, good lord. Not only do we have a pretty clear-cut correspondence to the what details we have of the Amethyst Empress story, the monomyth symbolism is as thick as pea soup. To my mind, it’s a sure sign that we’re on the right track when it comes to the importance of the Amethyst Empress story to the larger mythology.
Further reinforcing the Amethyst Empress symbolism in the Targaryen Dance of Dragons is Rhaenys, dubbed ‘The Queen who Never Was.’ Rhaenys’ mother was Jocelyn Baratheon and her father was Aemon Targaryen, second son to King Jahaerys I Targaryen and Queen Alysanne. Aemon was prince of Dragonstone and the eldest of Jahaerys and Alysanne’s sons to live to adulthood. When Ameon died fighting off pirates while Jahaerys still lived, the succession was put into question. As only child to the heir apparent, Rhaenys seemed the likeliest to inherit. Instead, Jahaerys passed over his granddaughter, naming his younger son Baelon his heir. Such an act also bypassed Baelon’s wife Alyssa, his elder sister. Incidentally, Alyssa was Jahaerys’ second child and thus also Aemon’s elder sister. So even in declaring Aemon his heir after the death of his firstborn, Aegon, Jahaerys had already bypassed a female heir in favor of a younger brother.
The act of disinheriting Rhaenys was a source of strife between Jahaerys and Alysanne. According to the worldbook,
Two estrangements are recorded, but they did not last more than a year or two before the pair resumed their customary friendship. The Second Quarrel, however, is of note, as it was due to Jahaerys’ decision in 92 AC to pass over his granddaughter Rhaenys—the daughter of his deceased eldest son and heir, Prince Aemon—in favor of bestowing Dragonstone and the place of heir apparent on his next eldest son, Baelon the Brave. Alysanne saw no reason why a man should be favored over a woman…and if Jahaerys thought women of less use, then he would have no need of her. They reconciled in time, but the Old King outlived his beloved queen, and in his last years it was said that the grief of their parting hung over his court like a pall.— The World of Ice and Fire, The Targaryen Kings: Jahaerys I
Can I just say what a badass Alysanne was? She flat out tells her husband that if he thinks women are worth less, he wouldn’t need her. What a queen.
Perhaps inspired by her grandmother, perhaps also in remembrance of her own lost claim, Rhaenys sides with Rhaenyra during the Dance. Though a woman in her mid-fifties, Rhaenys was still a fierce warrior and a dragonrider of Meleys, the Red Queen. She of the scarlet scales, pink wings, and copper horns and crest, a cunning dragon who fought both Aemond One-Eye riding Vhagar and Aegon II riding Sunfyre in the battle of Rook’s Rest, the battle that gave Aegon his burned arm.
It is recounted that Princess Rhaenys, the Queen Who Never Was, did not shrink from her foe. With a glad cry and a crack of her whip, she sent Meleys flying up to face them. Only Vhagar and Aemond came out of that battle unscathed; Sunfyre was crippled, and King Aegon II barely survived, suffering broken ribs, a broken hip, and burns that covered half his body. Worst was his left arm, where the dragonfire melted the king’s armor into his flesh. Rhaenys’s body was found several days later amidst the ruin of the Red Queen’s corpse, but so burned as to be unrecognizable.— The World of Ice and Fire, The Targaryen Kings: Aegon II
In good symbolic fashion, Rhaenys dies fighting usurper king Aegon II and his one-Other-eyed brother in a battle that leaves Aegon half burned, with a burned arm, and her consumed by flame alongside the corpse of her dragon, the Red Queen. That’s a solar king receiving a burning tree wound from a usurped queen who confronts him with a ‘glad cry’ and ‘crack of her whip’ before being burnt beyond recognition (hey, there Nissa Nissa! How are you?). Aegon II really had a thing for killing princesses who should have been queens, huh?
The Dance solidifies what Jahaerys’ choice to bypass Rhaenys in favor of Baelon and Aegon’s usurpation of Rhaenyra had implied: female Targaryens cannot inherit the throne. Not that we had seen any Targaryen queens prior to the Dance. However, there does seem to have been more of a co-rule mentality prior to the Dance. At the very least we have pairs of brother-sister rulers mentioned alongside each other. Aegon had Visenya and Rhaenys and Jahaerys had Alysanne. All three of these women had significant influence in their husband’s reigns, at times almost on par with the kings themselves. Yet after the Dance, we no longer see even the sister wives of Targaryen rulers exerting as much influence or involvement in ruling as some of their foremothers did.
Disinheriting female Targaryen heirs continues after the Dance, though rarely is it called attention to in the official histories as such. For every Rhaenys and Rhaenyra there are a few ‘silent sisters’ (shout out to Melanie Lot Seven!) whose inheritance was quietly set aside without even being recorded that way. You have to go looking for these silenced women who were forced to see their claims taken by a younger brother, uncle, or cousin without being allowed to speak on their own behalf or have their names mentioned as an heir.
After the death of Baelor I, grandson of Rhaenyra, rule should have gone to his next eldest sibling given his lack of children. However, instead of the rule going to Daena, Rhaena, or Elaena, his sister-wives, the rule went to Baelor’s uncle, Viserys II.
Though both of the sons of King Aegon III were dead, his three daughters yet survived, and there were some amongst the smallfolk—and even some lords—who felt that the Iron Throne should by rights now pass to Princess Daena. They were few, however; a decade of isolation in the Maidenvault had left Daena and her sisters without powerful allies, and memories of the woes that had befallen the realm when last a woman sat the Iron Throne were still fresh.—The World of Ice and Fire, The Targaryen Kings: Viserys II
Sure, blame Rhaenyra for trying to claim her birthright after her younger brother usurped her and then use that to disinherit another female heir. We all know what this is, and it’s a word that ends in -exism.
Anyway, on our list of other female Targaryen princesses who should have been heirs are Rhaegar’s daughter Rhaenys, who is murdered by solar king figure Tywin and could see her younger brother, or at least someone who claims to be her younger brother, seated on the Iron Throne in the next two books.
In fact, elder sisters whose younger brothers rule in their stead dates back to the very beginning of the Targaryen rule in Westeros. Many forget that Visenya was Aegon’s older sister, yet he is the one crowned conquering king of Westeros despite being her younger brother. And I would be remiss to leave out Rhaena Targaryen, daughter of Aenys I and sister-wife to Aegon, her younger brother and, after his death, wife to Maegor I. Although Aenys I first born child, Rhaena never inherits the rule. First her half-uncle/husband Maegor I ruled. And even after his death, rather than rule as Aenys’ firstborn and eldest child, she instead must watch as her younger brother (!) Jahaerys and his sister-wife Alysanne take the Iron Throne.
We may also need to include Daella Targaryen, elder sister to Aegon V. I name her as a possibility, as we do not know when she died and if it was prior to or after Aegon V took the throne in 233 AC. However, even if she were alive at the time he inherited, she wasn’t even considered as an option. The council that chose Aegon V to take the throne also bypassed the daughter of Daeron I, Maekar’s eldest son and heir presumptive prior to his death. True, Vaella was ‘simple minded’ according to the official histories, but given what we’ve seen with Targaryen inheritance, even if she hadn’t been the chances of her inheriting seem basically nil.
A Queen By Any Other Name
Being a linguist, I’m intrigued by the inclusion of four Targaryen women with the same prefix: Rhaen-*. Given that these four women are heirs, I think Martin may be making a play on ‘reign’ as well as ‘reine,’ the French word for queen. This latter may explain why there are no male characters with the Rhaen-* prefix. The closest male names we have are Rhaegal/Rhaegel, likely a play on ‘regal,’ and Rhaegar. Now, the prefix Rhae-* is likely a play on ‘rey’ the Spanish word for ‘king’, so the names Rhaegal, Rhaegel, Rhaegar, and Rhaego do have a royal connotation to them. Nevertheless, even taking that into account there are more female variations of names with Rhae-* and more female characters who have such names.
There are two Rhaegars, one Rhaego, one Rhaegel, and one Rhaegal in all of A Song of Ice and Fire and the related stories and worldbook (one of whom is an actual dragon, not a person). Compare that to three Rhaenas, three Rhaenys, one Rhaenyra, one Rhae, two Rhaellas, and one Rhaelle. Four male variations on Rhae-* with five male characters to six variations on Rhaen-* or Rhae-* with eleven characters. If we include Rhea among the female names, that adds one more variation and two more female characters. If Martin is indeed playing on ‘king’ with these names, it says something that there are more female variations and characters with this root than males.
Also intriguing is the connection between usurped women and female twins. Rhaena, the daughter of Aenys I, has twin daughters Aerea and Rhaella. When Rhaenyra The Half-Year Queen marries her uncle Daemon Targaryen, she becomes stepmother to the twin daughters of his first wife Laena Velaryon, Baela and Rhaena. This Rhaena was even explicitly named after her eventual step-mother Rhaenyra. It may not seem like much, but these are the only two examples of f/f twins in the Targaryen line, and they seem to play the same symbolic role as sisters do in mythical astronomy terms: that of the two moons or that of the two daughters and their mother playing the role of a triple goddess, something I hope to further explore in a later essay.
Names and their meaning aside, the kind of disempowerment we see with Targaryen elder sisters forced to give way to their younger brothers isn’t limited to the royal line. Female heirs to their father’s seat who retain their power instead of losing it via marriage are rare in Westeros. To highlight this, let’s take a look at two female heirs outside of Dorne: Rohanne Webber and Danelle Lothston, both of whom are maligned by broader society and associated with poison, bloodshed, violence, and death.
The Red Widow
Long before Varys was called the Spider, there was Rohanne Webber, Lady of Coldmoat and heir to Wyman Webber after his death. However, she would only inherit her father’s lands if she were married by the second anniversary of his death, elsewise the lands would revert to Wyman’s cousin Ser Wendell Webber. So right off the bat she can’t even inherit unless she has a husband to, presumably, rule for her. Great.
And it isn’t just for her red-blonde hair and the Webber arms—a white spider spotted red on a silvery web upon a black field (holy weirwood symbolism, Batman)—that she is called the Red Widow. Smallfolk and lords alike speak ill of her and view her with suspicion:
At Standfast you heard ill things of her. The Red Widow, she was called, for the husbands she had put into the ground. Old Sam Stoops said she was a witch, a poisoner, and worse. Two years ago she had sent her knights across the stream to seize an Osgrey man for stealing sheep. “When m’lord rode to Coldmoat to demand him back, he was told to look for him at the bottom of the moat,” Sam had said. “She’d sewn poor Dake in a bag o’ rocks and sunk him. ‘Twas after that Ser Eustace took Ser Bennis into service, to keep them spiders off his lands.”—The Sworn Sword
Even Egg himself is not immune to repeating the tales spread about her:
Egg drew water to fill it for the third time, then clambered back onto the well. “You’d best not take any food or drink at Coldmoat, ser. The Red Widow poisoned all her husbands.“—The Sworn Sword
There is absolutely no evidence that she poisoned her husbands, because she didn’t, yet that does not stop people from spreading rumors. In a later essay I hope to unpack the Maligned Woman trope in Westeros, so for now I will say that much of the talk about Rohanne seems to boil down to her being a female heir who outlived four (eventually five) husbands and whose babies died in infancy.
[Dunk] frowned. “Just how many husbands has she had, do you know?”
“Four,” said Egg, “but no children. Whenever she gives birth, a demon comes by night to carry off the issue. Sam Stoops’ wife says she sold her babes unborn to the Lord of the Seven Hells, so he’d teach her his black arts.”
“Highborn ladies don’t meddle with the black arts. They dance and sing and do embroidery.”—The Sworn Sword
Rohanne Webber, however much she may also sing and dance and do embroidery (how much, we don’t know since she doesn’t do these things on page), wields power. She’s intelligent, witty, protective of her people and lands, and capable of ruling in her own right. In short, she’s everything a good Lord of Westeros should be. And still, her father would not let her inherit after him unless she married. Such a stipulation would not have been made for a male heir, so this is clearly a patriarchal bias at work. Still, Rohanne does marry Ser Eustace at the end of The Sworn Sword and we know from The World of Ice and Fire that after he dies, she marries Gerold “The Golden” Lannister and becomes the great-grandmother of Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion.
I could spend a lot of time unpacking her symbolism, and I will eventually. She’s got Cat Woman Nissa Nissa written all over her, but for now let’s think about her as an Amethyst Empress archetypal figure. She’s a female heir to a ruling house. A male relative (her father) attempts to usurp her rule via marriage multiple times, even making it a stipulation of his will. She eventually marries solar king figure Gerold Lannister. Prior to Gerald, she marries the aging Ser Eustace: chequay lion in green and gold, a combination of fool’s motley, Garth the Green, and solar king symbolism.
He’s looking a bit Grey King-like too when we see him in his bedchamber.
Ser Eustace’s bedchamber occupied the fourth floor of the tower, with his solar just below. That was where he would be found, Dunk knew, puttering amongst the chests and barrels. The solar’s thick gray walls were hung with rusted weaponry and captured banners, prizes from battles fought long centuries ago and now remembered by no one but Ser Eustace. Half the banners were mildewed, and all were badly faded and covered with dust, their once bright colors gone to gray and green…
In his youth, Ser Eustace Osgrey must have been the very picture of chivalry, tall and broad and handsome. Time and grief had worked their will on him, but he was still unbent, a big-boned, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man with features as strong and sharp as some old eagle. His close-cropped hair had gone white as milk, but the thick mustache that hid his mouth remained an ashy gray. His eyebrows were the same color, the eyes beneath a paler shade of gray, and full of sadness.—The Sworn Sword
A grey king with milk-white hair, grey beard, and sad grey eyes haunting a room gone gray and green. How very fitting for a Bloodstone Emperor turned Grey King figure and a fitting would-be usurper to our Amethyst Empress’ lands. Plus there are all the rumors of dark arts and poison going around about her, even some child sacrifice. And, much of Osgrey’s mental state revolves around the first Blackfyre rebellion, and Rohanne’s attempts to resist usurpation almost lead to war between House Webber and House Coldmoat, so there’s chaos and war in the air even if it’s resolved via single combat rather than all out war.
Mad Danelle Lothston
Always a great sign when the epithet has ‘mad’ in it, right? Like Rohanne, this Lady of Harrenhal and last head of House Lothston has a lot of spooky tales told about her by the smallfolk:
“My old ma used to say that giant bats flew out from Harrenhal on moonless nights, to carry bad children to Mad Danelle for her cookpots. Sometimes I’d hear them scrabbling at the shutters.”—A Feast for Crows, Brienne II
[Jaime] found himself remembering tales he had first heard as a child at Casterly Rock, of mad Lady Lothston who bathed in tubs of blood and presided over feasts of human flesh within these very walls.—A Feast for Crows, Jaime III
Stories that maligned her even made their way into the history books of Westeros, albeit sans flesh-eating and child-cooking:
Ser Lucas Lothston—master-at-arms at the Red Keep—was given the seat as a gift from King Aegon III in 151 AC. Newly wed to the Lady Falena Stokeworth, following the scandal of her relations with Prince Aegon, the future Aegon the Unworthy, Lothston soon departed court with his bride. He returned to King’s Landing in Aegon’s reign, serving as Hand for less than a year before Aegon again banished him from court along with his wife and daughter. Their line was ended in madness and chaos when Lady Danelle Lothston turned to the black arts during the reign of King Maekar I.—The World of Ice and Fire, House Lothston
Like Rohanne, heir to house Lothston Danelle was accused of dark arts and witchcraft, including the murder of children. Unlike with Rohanne, we have no context for understanding why such accusations spread. She’s one more maligned woman in Westeros who also happens to wield power and be an heir and ruler of a lordly house.
Danelle lacks the male relative as a usurper component of the Amethyst Empress archetype, but she is a female heir whose reign ends with the usurpation of her house by the king. After Danelle’s death, Maekar I gives Harrenhal to House Whent for their role in defeating the Lothstons after Danelle ‘goes mad’ by ‘turning to the dark arts’ and causing chaos (there’s our chaos and war element). The exact details of the events leading to the fall of House Lothston aren’t recorded in The World of Ice and Fire, though if I were to don some tinfoil for a second, it might have to do with Bloodraven. We have no evidence that they knew each other closely, but she is one of the lords to support Bloodraven in the Second Blackfyre Rebellion.
Mad Danelle Lothston herself rode forth in strength from her haunted towers at Harrenhal, clad in black armor that fit her like an iron glove, her long red hair streaming.—The Mystery Knight
We’ll come back around to her symbolic significance in a later essay, but for now note that she’s clad in ‘black armor that fit her like an iron glove’ bringing to mind the black blooded hands of the wights and Coldhands. And, she has long, streaming red hair like the red-headed moon maidens Catelyn, Sansa, and Ygritte as well as like the streaming red tail of the Lightbringer comet.
Circling back to the discussion of Danelle’s possible connection with Bloodraven, we have the accusations of black arts, an accusation lobbed at Bloodraven and his half-sister Shiera Seastar. This raises the possibility that Bloodraven and Danelle could have been cozy at some point. The Westerosi have strong superstitions about people who are claimed to practice the black arts, most of whom are women, so once Bloodraven fell out of favor, anyone with similar ties to the black arts could have come under more intense scrutiny.
Or it could just be that the Targaryen king used the accusations of black arts and witchcraft to depose her and put someone with less reason to potentially rebel against his rule in her place. One of Danelle’s ancestors (perhaps her grandfather or great grandfather) was Lucas Lothston, whose wife Falena Stokeworth was Aegon IV’s first mistress. Falena’s daughter Jeyne, who might have even been Aegon’s child, was Aegon’s eighth mistress and there are rumors of Aegon being abed with mother and daughter. However, Aegon gave Jeyne a pox and afterward, Lucas was banished from his role as King’s Hand. Suffice to say, the Lothstons had no reason to love the Targaryens and despite assisting Bloodraven in the Second Blackfyre Rebellion, they could very well have changed sides or harbored resentment toward the Targaryens for the disease and humiliation of their ancestors.
In the end, all we know is Danelle was deposed and a family that had formerly served the Lothstons were installed in her place as lords of Harrenhal. Note similarly that Coldmoat, the seat of House Webber Rohanne had inherited becomes subsumed into House Osgrey’s control upon her marriage to Ser Eustace. It’s highly likely that it eventually came under Lannister control upon her marriage to Ser Gerold, as we know of no current Lord of Coldmoat. Both women lose their seats, meaning their family no longer rules; that’s Amethyst Empress symbolism.
At this point I’m sure you’re internally (maybe externally, I don’t know) screaming at me about the symbolism of Mad Danelle and Rohanne Webber. A red-haired woman who bathes in blood, eats human flesh, and cooks children carried to her by bats. A red-haired woman who murdered four husbands and offered her children to the Lord of Seven Hells to learn dark arts. That’s Nissa Nissa weirwood goddess symbolism! And yes, you are correct! Give yourselves a pat on the back.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m going to circle back around to weirwood symbolism in a future essay, once I’ve laid the groundwork with the Amethyst Empress symbolism. It is important to note how much the Nissa Nissa and Amethyst Empress archetypes overlap. So just file that away as something I’ll come back to and unpack.
Leading Ladies of Lordly Houses
So what about those women we do see wielding authority in Westeros? There are women who rule lordly houses; there’s Barbray Dustin, Maege Mormont, Olenna Tyrell. Are these women not counter-evidence to the case I’m building for disempowered female heirs? Great question! Let’s take a closer look at these leading ladies, shall we?
Widows of ruling lords in Westeros have a unique position in society in that they no longer ‘belong’ to the house of their birth, yet their lord husband has died. Young childless widows who are still fertile, especially those with pollical value like Margaery Tyrell or Jeyne Westerling, are highly encouraged to remarry to secure a new political connection for their families. Even Cersei is not immune from Tywin’s desire to secure ties first with Dorne, then with the Tyrells after Robert’s death, and she’s in her mid-thirties. Yet, she is still fertile and could produce children that would further solidify such connections, so Tywin schemes away.
Older childless widows such as the Lady Donella Hornwood also face pressure to marry. After the death of her husband and son, Lady Hornwood is not allowed to continue ruling in their stead. In fact, her existence as a childless widow threatens the peace of the North, with houses from all over vying to marry her. Not that she herself matters, though Rodrik Cassel does point out she is comely for a woman past childbearing years. No, the Umbers, Manderlys, Tallharts, Karstarks, Flints, Glovers, and Boltons want her land, her seat, and the power that comes with it. She is but a means to the acquisition of power in various forms. Fitting for a society that favors male authority, naturalizing Lord Hornwood’s bastard Larence is an option to rule in her place. Nowhere is it ever considered that she be allowed the rule.
Barbray Dustin seems to be the exception that proves the rule in the current timeline. A childless widow of Willam Dustin who rules in his name, she does not face the same slew of suitors vying to control her body and lands the way Lady Hornwood does. There are no other male heirs of House Dustin that we know of. Yet unlike, Lady Hornwood, Barbray Dustin has not had to remarry, and the why is never explicated on page. It may be that Deepwood Motte is a less desirable position than Lord of the Hornwood. It may also be that her connection to the Starks and Boltons, as well as her forceful personality, prevented any claim being pressed too much. From what we see of her on page, she’s not the kind of woman to be taken advantage of or controlled. I personally think it has more to do with her symbolism—the childless “snow lady” of Barrowton with her dead husband makes for a very lovely picture of the icy corpse queen we call the Night’s Queen, don’t you think?
Maege Mormont seems another exception, as she, too, rules without contest from Bear Isle after her brother Jeor is sent to the wall and her nephew Jorah exiled. With no other male capable of inheriting, no husband, and a single mother of three daughters, there is literally no one to contest her rule. Once again, the force of her personality and the lack of desirability of Bear Island—Lady Lynesse didn’t want to live there, after all—may contribute to her continued uncontested rule. Or it may also be that in the North, where they are in closer contact with Wildlings and their spearwives and less beholden to the Faith of the Seven, which seems to have a more diminished role for women in general, a woman ruling a house with no other male heirs need not remarry. Were it peacetime rather than war with all its tensions, perhaps Lady Hornwood and her land would not have been fought over so much. Who knows?
In the Reach, Arwen Oakheart currently rules House Oakheart even with a dead husband and several living sons. While Queen of Thorns Olenna Tyrell may not be the titular head of House Tyrell, despite what the television show presented, she is the more intelligent and capable of the two. She also appears to be more of the mastermind behind the purple wedding, though how much was her idea and within her control is still up for debate. Yet even if we give her more power than, say Littlefinger, in the events that unfolded, behind the scenes control is not the same as being recognized as a ruler in her own right.
Anya Waynewood in the Veil not only presides over House Waynewood after the death of her husband yet with three living sons, she is also the Lord Declarant and warden of Harry the Heir. Here we find what may truly be an exception to the Westerosi tradition of disempowering female heirs. All of the other women mentioned in this section were granted authority to rule in the absence of husbands, and excepting Maege Mormont, all were ruling their husband’s houses rather than their own. Rather than being a widow of the House’s lord, Anya Waynewood is the only child of Lord Waynewood, his de-facto heir in the absence of other male relatives to inherit. So it may very well be that Anya’s position, like Maege’s, is one of absence of other, more suitable male heirs rather than true empowerment.
It may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s important to distinguish between female heirs (badum tsss) of lordly houses who come by their power via marriage and a husband’s death versus those who are the oldest (living) child of a lordly house. The Amethyst Empress was an heir by birth, not by marriage. So, while women who rule after the death of their husband highlight that Westeros had situations where exceptions could be made for a woman ruling a lordly house (the death of her husband, the house’s ‘true’ lord) such situations do not negate that Westerosi culture was hostile to female heirs by birth unless there were no male heirs.
Alright, so after all this what do we have? What conclusions can we make about female heirs and rulers in Westeros outside of Dorne. Well, of the handful of women we do see in seats of power, most are primarily widows of House Lords rather than heirs of their own houses. For the most part women are, with very, very few exceptions, not allowed to inherit the rule of their family of birth, including in the royal family. Those who do inherit from their family of birth are often unfairly maligned by society and history, accused of dealing in the dark arts and perpetrating violent, bloody crimes, and eventually see their lands and seat ruled by men. Those who are not maligned or usurped seem to exist only as a ‘last resort’ because of a lack of other male heirs. Which brings us to the final thing of note: for both women who rule in place of a dead husband and those very few who inherited rule from their father, they only rule in absence of a husband or brother. Male children may be present, but never a brother or husband. Given that the Amethyst Empress was usurped by her younger brother—who may also have been her husband, more on this later—I find this consistent detail, shall we say…interesting.
Who Run The Planetos? Women
Why is this significant for our understanding of the Amethyst Empress? Because it isn’t standard for Martin’s world. That women rarely inherit from their family of birth in Westeros (outside of Dorne) is symbolically and thematically interesting for our understanding of what Martin is doing. Westeros is the primary vehicle for his symbolic and mythological tapestry, so it is the primary way we as readers engage with the Azor Ahai/Nissa Nissa monomyth. Reading The World of Ice and Fire deepens, expands, and enriches our experience, for sure; we wouldn’t even know about the Amethyst Empress without it. But Westeros is still our primary lens, so when we see Westerosi culture embodying a cultural perspective or system the rest of Planetos does not share, we should sit up and pay attention.
In this case, we know that not all of the societies of Planetos, whether historical or outside of Westeros, abide by a system that regularly disempowers female heirs.
The Fisher Queens of Essos ruled the lands adjacent to the Silver Sea from a floating palace that made its way around the shores. Not only does this call to mind the floating cities of the crannogmen and the ‘Wet Wild’, we should also think of Sea Queens and merfolk. This line of mythical queens ruled “before the race of man became literate,” and their culture learned and peaceful. In The World of Ice and Fire it is said,
The Fisher Queens were wise and benevolent and favored of the gods, we are told, and kings and lords and wise men sought the floating palace for their counsel. Beyond their domains, however, other peoples rose and fell and fought, struggling for a place in the sun. —The World of Ice and Fire, Beyond the Free Cities: The Grasslands
Unfortunately, even this ancient, women-run culture is not immune to usurpation by a male relative. After who knows how many Fisher Queens, the last we know of them is a man by the name of Huzhor Amai:
Westeros remembers their conquerors as the Sarnori, for at its height their great kingdom included all the lands watered by the Sarne and its vassals, and the three great lakes that were all that remained of the shrinking Silver Sea. They called themselves the Tall Men (in their own tongue the Tagaez Fen). Long of limb and brown of skin they were, like the Zoqora, though their hair and eyes were black as night. Warriors, sorcerers, and scholars, they traced their descent to the hero king they called Huzhor Amai (the Amazing), born of the last of the Fisher Queens, who took to wife the daughters of the greatest lords and kings of the Gipps, the Cymmeri, and the Zoqora, binding all three peoples to his rule. His Zoqora wife drove his chariot, it is said, his Cymer wife made his armor (for her people were the first to work iron), and he wore about his shoulders a great cloak made from the pelt of a king of the Hairy Men.—The World of Ice and Fire, Beyond the Free Cities: The Grasslands
Crowfood’s Daughter is currently working on unpacking this legend, so I will leave the majority of parsing out the symbolism, which is quite dense, to her. What’s important for the Amethyst Empress archetype is that a long line of female rulers ends with a male relative who takes wives by force and wears the pelt of the king of the Hairy Men, which is skinchanging symbolism, a facet of usurpation symbolism I will unpack in an upcoming essay. (Yeah, yeah, I know I keep saying that, but seriously, there is so much to work through here!)
Intriguingly, just before this passage we hear of “the lost city of Lyber, where acolytes of a spider goddess and a serpent god fought and endless, bloody war” that existed south of the Silver Sea. Tantalizing symbolism in the context of Rohanne “the Red Widow spider” Webber and Danelle Lothston who was displaced by a dragon (serpent) king. One thinks of Sansa with her silver hairnet (note the web on the Webber banner is silver), Dany’s silver hair that could very well match the Amethyst Empress herself, Patchface’s gowns of silver seaweed that mermaids wear, the silver robes and chains of the septons and septas, and the net used to catch green dragon Rhaegal, for starters.
We’ll circle back around to the spider and her silver web, but for now, note that it comes with characters associated with both the Amethyst Empress and Nissa Nissa. But let us, like Arachne, keep weaving our tapestry of ruling women.
We also have the god-empress of Leng, about which The World of Ice and Fire states,
In the four centuries since Leng threw off the yoke of Yi Ti, the island has flourished under the rule of a long line of god-empresses. The first of the current dynasty, still revered in the east as Khiara the Great, was of pure Lengii descent; to please her subjects, she took two husbands, one Lengii and one YiTish. This custom was continued by her daughters and their daughters in turn. By tradition the first of the imperial consorts commands the empress’s armies, the second her fleets.—The World of Ice and Fire, The Bones and Beyond: Leng
The Lengii in general and the god-empresses in particular have a lot of significant symbolic references around them that we don’t have time to dig into. For now, note that these female rulers are the only rulers of Leng known to any travelers to the distant land. In fact, it is what sets them apart from Yi-Ti, a neighboring kingdom ruled by god-emperors who, like the Lengii, trace their descent from the Great Empire of the Dawn and thus the Amethyst Empress.
Note also in the preceding quote that Leng was once controlled by Yi Ti, and half of the population descends from YiTish invaders,
To the traveler, they remain indistinguishable from the people of the Golden Empire; they speak a dialect of the same language, pray to the same gods, eat the same foods, follow the same customs, and even reverence the azure emperor in Yin…though they worship only their own god-empress.—The World of Ice and Fire, The Bones and Beyond: Leng
The native Lengii have a different appearance and culture, but also worship the god-empress. So, yet again even in the context of a culture ruled entirely by women we have mention of invasion and male dominance in a place where it doesn’t belong. Yet another sign that female authority and male usurpation of that authority go together in the Amethyst Empress archetype.
Moving to the plains of the Jogos Nhai brings us to the jhattar Zhea, leader of the Jogos Nhai in a battle against Lo Bu, the last of the scarlet emperors of Yi Ti.
Lo Bu divided his huge army into thirteen smaller hosts and sent them forth in all directions to hunt down the nomads wherever they might go. It is written that a million Jogos Nhai died at their hands.
At last the nomads, facing the extinction of their race, did what they had never done before. A thousand rival clans joined together and raised up a jhattar, a woman in man’s mail named Zhea. Known as Zhea the Barren, Zhea Zorseface, and Zhea the Cruel, and famed even then for her cunning, she is remembered to this day in the Golden Empire of Yi Ti, where mothers whisper her name to frighten unruly children into obedience.
In courage, valor, and skill at arms, Lo Bu had no peer, but in cunning he proved to be no match for Zhea. The war between the young emperor and the wizened jhattar lasted less than two years. Zhea isolated each of Lo Bu’s thirteen armies, slew their scouts and foragers, starved them, denied them water, led them into wastelands and traps, and destroyed them each in turn. Finally her swift riders descended upon Lo Bu’s own host, in a night of carnage and slaughter so terrible that every stream for twenty leagues around was choked with blood.
Amongst the slain was Lo Bu himself, the forty-third and last of the scarlet emperors. When his severed head was presented to Zhea, she commanded that the flesh be stripped from the bone, so that his skull might be dipped in gold and made into her drinking cup. From that time to this, every jhattar of the Jogos Nhai has drunk fermented zorse milk from the gilded skull of the Boy Too Bold By Half, as Lo Bu is remembered.—The World of Ice and Fire, The Bones and Beyond: The Plains of the Jogos Nhai
A warrior woman who united a thousand rival clans to defend her people and drinks from a cup made of the gold-dipped skull of her enemy sounds pretty badass. There’s also some pretty dense mythical astronomy going on here, too: Last Hero Math, the symbolic thousand alluding to the thousand thousand dragons that poured forth from the broken moon and Bloodraven’s ‘a thousand eyes and one’, rivers choked with blood, a decapitated god(-emperor). A bold, young warrior with thirteen armies fighting a ‘wizened’ and ‘cunning’ bloodthirsty one should make us think of the Last Hero and the Grey King, too. Does this make Zhea a female Azor Ahai figure? Sure looks like it, especially when you add in children being frightened of her, mothers ‘whispering’ her name, and drinking fermented zorse milk from a skull dipped in gold. She, Khal Drogo, and the Golden Company should talk.
On the more positive side for representation of female warrior rulers in Essos we have Xanda Qo, Princess of Sweet Lotus Vale. Similarly to Dany, she was a former slave who united all the Summer Islands under her rule and made an end to slavery. She armed her men with goldenheart bows, a wood far stronger than those of the slavers and able to pierce leather and plate (like roots of a weirwood tree??? Ehh?? Ehh??). She also built ships!
…tall graceful ships cunningly fit together without so much as a single nail, many walled with rare hardwoods of the isles made harder still with magics, so the rams of slaver ships cracked and splintered against their sides. As swift as they were strong, her ships oft sported tall, curved prows carved into the shapes of birds and beasts. These “swan necks” won them the sobriquet of “swan ships.”—The World of Ice and Fire, Beyond the Free Cities: The Summer Isles
Rule then passed to her daughter Chatana Qo, the Arrow of Jhahar, who succeeded in prevailing in what they called the Slavers’ Wars. The mother-daughter team up reminds us of Chataya, the owner of a brothel in King’s Landing, and her daughter Alayaya, both Summer Islanders. Thankfully not as brutal an ending to her story as to what we know of Alayaya’s in the current timeline, the unity of the Summer Isles under female leadership did not last after Chatana. According to the book, “the Arrow wed unwisely and did not rule as well as she had fought,” so chock up another point for a husband being somehow involved in the downfall of a female-led kingdom.
The other, more widely known female ruler from Essos is Nymeria, the queen who burned Ten Thousand ships. While all the details of her are too much to explore here, she is a ruling queen who set the Dornish precedent for absolute primogeniture. Ruler of Ny Sar on the Rhoyne, she led the survivors of the Valyrian invasion of the Rhoyne into exile from Essos. She first landed on Abulu, aka “The Isle of Women” (a very fitting name), where descendants of hers still live. When she landed in Dorne, she allied with Mors Martell, taking him as her husband and burning her fleet of ships. She then conquered the rest of Dorne and when she died, her firstborn child a daughter, took her throne as per the Rhoynish custom of absolute primogeniture. Oh, and like Danelle and Rohanne, the Westerosi songs claim she was a witch. Go figure.
What intrigues me most about these women is that their stories make up a significant proportion of what we know in The World of Ice and Fire about their cultures. We know of only one other jhattar of the Jogos Nhai and he gets all of half of a sentence. The only other named Summer Islander in this specific section of The World of Ice and Fire is Malthar Xaq, a slaving prince who gets two sentences. The only native rulers of Leng are the god-empresses; when the YiTish god-emperors ruled, they were usurpers and invaders. Nymeria’s story gets its own section in the Ancient History heading and takes up the bulk of the history of the Rhoynish wars against Valyria.
These women aren’t just footnotes they’re major historical figures in their respective cultures and in the history of Planetos as a whole. Thus, Martin is painting a very different picture of the rest of Planetos than he is of Westeros when it comes to the position of women in socio-political authority.
And if you want to talk other roles for women, we have warrior maids as part of or even entire classes in various Essosi cultures: Bayasabhad, Shamyriana, Kayakayanaya, and Sarnor. The warrior maids of the Shamyriana are the only warriors in their cities, as the society believes that only those who can give life can take it. Very intriguing for Nissa Nissa symbolism and the Northern concept of “he who passes the sentence must swing the sword” if I may say so. These legions of women like the spearwives of the Wildlings, only bigger, badder, and the bulk of the armed forces instead of an addendum.
Martin thus creates more space and more diverse roles for women in non-Westerosi society. One could handwave this away as an attempt at ‘political correctness,’ but it seems too intentional, too pointed to just be a way to score diversity points. He’s too meticulous a worldbuilder, and he’s the kind of writer for whom tiny details have immense significance, so to brush this aside as mere window dressing makes little sense with what we know of him as a storyteller. It feels safe to say, then, that we’re meant to compare Westerosi society’s treatment of female heirs with what we see in the rest of Essos, and when we do, Westeros comes out smelling like the contents of Tywin’s chamber pot.
Something’s Rotten in the State of Westeros
To sum up, systemic denial of inheritance to female heirs isn’t a historical or global cultural norm for Planetos. It’s not even the norm in all of Westeros, given Nymeria’s lasting influence on Dornish customs. Starting with the Targaryens and most especially after the Dance, we see Westerosi society push women further and further out of the seat of power, especially when it comes to inherited seats and lordships. An older widow might rule her husband’s house after his death, if she is not strongly encouraged to remarry, but few women ever inherit from their fathers. Female heirs instead lose their birthright either to brother, uncle, or husband, giving up their place as heir to become part of another house altogether and support their husband and sons. Like the nameless First Men Lannister heiress whose children and husband might have taken her name, but it was her husband Joffrey Lydden who was proclaimed the heir to the house.
If I may be so bold, I would call Westeros (excepting Dorne) a ‘usurping’ society because it systematically robs female heirs of their potential power in favor of male heirs.
Make no mistake, Martin does seem to be making a point of this fact in the story unfolding in Westeros. The women discussed here are secondary and tertiary characters in his world, if that. If they were my only supporting evidence, one would be right to dismiss my ramblings about disempowered female heirs as so much reading into things.
But I have more to show you. As mentioned earlier, every single one of his female POV characters is, at some point in their story, an heir. Some are firstborn children, others become the oldest surviving child and heir through the actual or presumed death of other children who might precede them in the line of succession. However, the same cannot be said of his male POV characters, only one of which, Sam, displays this kind of disinheritance in favor of a ‘more suitable’ heir and younger brother. That every female POV displays this symbolism compared to one male POV points to it being an intentional element in Martin’s crafting of these characters. Especially when taken alongside how he’s gone out of his way in external materials to show that systemic disempowerment of female heirs is a function of Westerosi society in particular.
The way the archetype overlaps and intersects with the other archetypes used with his female characters further points to this being no accident. Many of our female POV characters are strong contenders for Nissa Nissa figures, with Nissa Nissa the weirwood goddess figuring strongly in the two most blatant Amethyst Empress archetypes: Cersei and Asha. Though not all of the female POV characters share the vengeful aspects of the weirwood goddess, many do, including Cersei, Arya, Catelyn, Dany, Melisandre, and, at least partially, Arianne. Along the way, we’ll uncover a unique facet to the Amethyst Empress archetype shared most prominently by Asha, Sansa, and Brienne, but I won’t give that away now. You’ll have to keep reading to find out what it is!
Let me be clear, to start off this series I will be treating the Amethyst Empress as a separate archetype with its own unique set of motifs and symbolism that will play out in the lives of our female POV characters, both internally and externally. I will note shared or overlapping symbolism with Nissa Nissa, the weirwood goddess, and other symbolic loci like mermaids as they arise, but for now, I will treat it as a separate facet of the monomyth that intersects with ones we’re familiar with. Once that has been investigated I will circle back around to Nissa Nissa and make the case for the Amethyst Empress being Nissa Nissa, at least symbolically if not historically. From there I plan to build on the groundwork laid with the Amethyst Empress and Nissa Nissa to discuss other facets of the female archetype, such as Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, the Mother of Monsters, perhaps a deep dive or two into specific characters, and deconstructing the Foreign Temptress trope. I’ll even lay the groundwork for what I think Martin may do in future books with specific characters based on what I see as being the goal of the Amethyst Empress characters.
But for now, let’s bring it back into the Amethyst Empress, the usurped queen and her wicked younger brother and how this archetype plays itself out in the internal and external arcs of our female POV characters. We will begin the next essay, appropriately enough, with Amethyst Empress Cersei.