Ever since Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, viewers have debated whether Shireen Baratheon’s death by burning was the most gut-churning moment the series has ever depicted, or whether it was too gut-churning—a storytelling mistake, a pointless shot of misery into a story already soaked in it. Were the circumstances Stannis Baratheon found himself in really so dire to make it likely he’d sacrifice his only heir? Is there any redeeming a show that snuffs out a little girl, whom the audience has come to know over years, in one of the most painful fashions imaginable?
I don’t have answers. But with each passing day, I increasingly suspect Shireen’s death will linger in my mind alongside some of the most powerful Game of Thrones moments, because of the way it becomes both more disturbing and more meaningful the more you turn it over. It took a while for me to process the full atrocity of the Red Wedding, the way it destroyed a group of would-be heroes while demonstrating that the threat of violence underlies all social rules. Similarly, the death of Oberyn Martell at first just seemed gruesome, but then seemed genius for the way it exploded expectations about revenge narratives. The longer I sit with it, the more Shireen’s death seems like another distillation of one of the show’s core lessons—and the more its horror seems plausible not only in the world of Thrones but in the world we all live in.
As I wrote in my roundtable entry about the episode, modern culture rarely depicts non-insane parents harming non-insane children. But the idea of innocents sacrificed by their fathers lies at the center of some of the most influential stories of all time—see: Jesus. Many viewers have pointed out that Shireen has a close mythological precedent in Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. As Amanda Marcotte summarized in an insightful post at Slate, “Every beat of the Greek myth is the same as Stannis’s story. The troops are stuck and starving and the general, Agamemnon, must sacrifice his own daughter to turn the fates to their favor. The mother begging for mercy, the disapproving second-in-command who can do nothing to stop it, the daughter who says she will do whatever it takes to help—it’s all a clear echo.”
But one needn’t turn to mythology to find instances of people behaving like Stannis. Oberyn’s demise a year ago sent me down a historical rabbit hole reading about real-life trials by combat, and Shireen’s death has done much the same but with regards to human sacrifice (please send help). Across history and across cultures, people have killed the defenseless in hopes of rewards from unseen forces, often out of a desire to change the kind of inexorable circumstances that Stannis faces. The Aztecs are perhaps the most famous practitioners, with priests making a daily habit of ripping out beating hearts to keep the sun in the sky. But societies in places from Europe to China to North America have occasionally turned to similar practices over time, and it still sometimes happens today.
Many sacrificial victims have been captives or slaves; in certain periods of Viking and Egyptian cultures, living servants were buried or burned with their masters’ corpses. Other victims were killed for possessing features that, to a Thrones viewer, might recall Shireen’s grayscale or of the story of Tyrion nearly being thrown into the sea as a baby. “A surprising proportion of bog bodies from northern Europe have physical defects—such as spinal abnormalities or foreshortened limbs—and these people may have been selected for sacrifice because they had been ‘touched by the gods,’” wrote the archaeologist Mike Parker-Pearson for the BBC in 2011.
But others were like Shireen in that they were chosen for sacrifice because of their parentage. Recent scholarship corroborates Greek and Roman propagandists’ accounts that Carthaginians burned their infants at altars with some regularity. In 2010, a reformed witch doctor in Uganda told authorities he killed his own son, along with around 70 other people, for spiritual reasons. The calculation is as obvious as it’s horrifying—the more valuable a thing is to someone, the greater a gift to the divine it can be. With this thought in mind, the recent scenes of Stannis expressing affection for his daughter can be sickeningly reconciled with what he did to her. Although Melisandre talks about king’s blood, by the logic of propitiation, Stannis’s love for Shireen, the fact that she’s his sole heir, and the fact that she’s so lovely isn’t in conflict with his disposal of her. It’s the point of it.
Shireen, strapped to a post and screaming for mercy from her family, resembles other kinds of real-life victims in obvious ways, from the subjects of the Salem witch trials to the women and girls still targeted in “honor killings” around the world. Those deaths don’t count as sacrifices per se, but they do result from a specific kind of violence, often gendered, that destroys individuals for the sake of ideology. You can argue it’s the same mentality that underlies suicide bombing, the ritualized serial killings fetishized in TV shows like Hannibal and True Detective, or even (Parker-Pearson pointed this out) much of the rhetoric around war and capital punishment.
Game of Thrones is a story about many things, but primary among them is the torching of innocence: see the recent developments with Sansa, or Vulture’s “The Saddest Child Deaths on Game of Thrones ... Ranked!” Also high on the list of overarching themes is the notion of bodies as commodities, to be traded and disposed of for the profit of the powerful. In Sunday night’s episode alone, in addition to Shireen’s death, viewers saw the pit fighters of Meereen sliced up for entertainment and the young women of the Braavosi brothel presented like livestock to Meryn Trant. And while it’s not yet clear whether Melisandre’s prophecies are reliable, you can also see Stannis’s choice to kill his daughter and save his army as someone offering a starkly utilitarian answer to the classic Trolley Problem; he can justify his actions in the same way Tywin Lannister did after the Red Wedding.
Few things I’ve seen in a work of fiction have distilled all these ideas about power and violence and human nature so clearly while reminding of as many real world atrocities as Shireen’s demise has. It frightens not because it’s fantasy but because, in some deep way, it’s familiar. The poet Seamus Heaney once wrote of a similar feeling when going to visit the “Tollund Man,” the mummified corpse of a person who, many believed, was sacrificed to the gods in 4th-century BC Denmark. “Out here in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost,” Heaney wrote. “Unhappy and at home.”