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.