What Should Truly Disturb Us About Game of Thrones’ Child Sacrifice

Stannis Baratheon is not new.

Like many viewers, I was sickened by his choice to sacrifice his young daughter, Shireen, in this past weekend’s episode of Game of Thrones. As he and his stranded army freeze in a snowstorm, the high priestess Melisandre advises him to burn Shireen for the “Lord of the Light” so that her “king’s blood” will work its magic and grant him a military victory.

In a brutal scene, tiny Shireen, unsuspecting of her fate until the final moments, is tied to a pyre and set aflame. She dies screaming for her mother and father to save her.

The denizens of the Internet are now united in their hatred for Stannis. Slate has declared him this week’s Worst Person in Westeros. It was arguably the darkest moment of the series, beating even the Red Wedding’s gore with its betrayal of parental sanity and the youth of its victim.

However, most commenters have overlooked one crucial fact: the story of a general sacrificing his daughter to a strict god in return for success on the field of battle is not a new one. It can be found smack in America’s best-selling book ever: the Bible.

Quick show of hands: have you heard of Jephthah’s daughter?

She has no first name. She is only “Bat Jephthah” in Hebrew, or just “Bath” as named by literary critic Mieke Bal, who argues that “not to name her is to violate her with the text.” Jephthah is an early Israelite judge, a military chieftan. Facing a difficult battle against the Ammonites, he makes a vow to God: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)

God keeps his end of the bargain, but when Jephthah returns home, “there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing.” He rends his clothes in mourning, but also engages in some heavy-duty victim blaming: “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low … for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”

She answers him: “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth,” (Judges 11:36). A seemingly willing victim, she asks only that she be given two months to wander the mountains and mourn her virginity with other young women. We are told her father then “did with her according to the vow he had made.”

Sound familiar?

Stannis tries to elicit a similar sort of consent from his own adolescent daughter, but he withholds a crucial piece of information: namely, her imminent death. Visiting her tent, he finds her reading from an old history text, The Dance of Dragons, which describes a civil war. He asks her who she would have chosen in that contest, to which she responds: “I wouldn’t have chosen either. It’s all the choosing sides that made everything so horrible.” Stannis tells her that, “Sometimes a person has to choose. Sometimes, the world forces his hand.”

Like Jephthah’s daughter, Shireen is interpellated into the role of comforter: “It’s all right, Father,” she says. “… It doesn’t matter. I want to help you. Is there any way I can help?” After a telling pause, Stannis answers, “Yes there is.”

His child sits up straight and tall. “Good,” she says. “I want to. I am the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and I am your daughter.”

Shireen is led through a crowd of soldiers, clutching her new toy stag, before she sees the stake and realizes what is happening. “Where’s my father?,” she screams, before her horrific death, which is both visual and auditory, punctuated by screams, the crackle of the flames, her mother’s last minute anguish, and painful reaction shots.

For some critics, the scene defied language. At the New York Times, Jeremy Egner said: “Oh, man. I can’t even write it.” We wanted to avert our gaze. Even the camera had, after all. Some viewers have found many aspects of the show exceed their tolerance for viewing even virtual pain, reaching a “not-for-me” moment. Yet Bal’s interpretation of Bat-Jephthah demands that we grieve in words or ritual: “Lamenting is, precisely, what Bath chooses to use her last months for.”

So here I am, writing. So are hundreds of others. We think that trauma silences us, but, as Dori Laub argues, sometimes it provokes a flurry of speech.

Once again, we must confront the ethically fraught universe of the Game of Thrones. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, show-runner D.B. Weiss acknowledged the ethical reprehensibility of this chess move, but he also called us out for our selective levels of voyeuristic sympathy:

“It’s like a two-tiered system,” he noted. “If a superhero knocks over a building and there are 5,000 people in the building that we can presume are now dead, does it matter? Because they’re not people we know. But if one dog we like gets run over by a car, it’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen. I totally understand where that visceral reaction comes from. I have that same reaction. There’s also something shitty about that. So instead of saying, ‘How could you do this to somebody you know and care about?’ maybe when it’s happening to somebody we don’t know so well, maybe then it should hit us all a bit harder.”

In other words, what Judith Butler calls “grievable lives” are as hard to come by in fantasy as they are in our national policies and the conversations surrounding them.

The differences between Jephthah’s daughter and Shireen matter as much as their similarities. As in so many biblical sacrifices, Mrs. Jephthah is absent from the sacrificial “choice.” In contrast, Shireen’s mother is present, and even willing, until her last-minute, panicked regret. Unlike Bat-Jephthah, Shireen has a name, one she claims proudly—“I am the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon”—but then subsumes it to her role as Stannis’ daughter.

Re-reading the story of Jephthah’s daughter, I was struck by one of many gaps in the text. She tells her father to do with her as he has promised—but, like Stannis, he has not revealed the details of his bargain. Most critics infer that Bat-Jephthah knows the stakes of the game: she has seen a sign of mourning in her father’s rent garments, and she laments her own demise. Still, I wonder. Did she know the pain of her fate? Did she, like Shireen, scream upon her pyre?

I wish it were harder to draw analogies between Shireen’s fictional burning and the fires of reality. I wish that Weiss’ quote did not, for me, evoke the #blacklivesmatter campaign. I wish that Kalief Browder had not died this week, the traumatized victim of a callous criminal justice system. But fantasy, in its Greek root, is all about “showing,” and it reveals our real horrors—not the other way around.

Do we, like Stannis, think that violence is simply our national fate, the dark side of our manifest destiny? His sin is writ large in his individualistic violation of the parental charge to protect. His daughter’s sympathetic, sweet countenance fulfills our stereotypical image of an innocent victim. In contrast, our collective responsibility for the wars fought in our name or the mistreatment of our fellow citizens is cloaked in the morass of complex systems, systems that require deep analysis and uncomfortable confrontations. Will we break that cycle—or will we say to the news, “not-for-me”? I’m not sure.

For the night is dark and full of terrors.

  • Jim Reed

    This is an example of how writers of today are just better than writers of the Bible. We have advanced in some ways since then.

  • Pascal

    really impressive way to completely miss the mark of an excellent piece

  • Jim Reed

    Thanks. Sometimes the point of fiction is to make people react.

  • Karie Ryan Ordway

    I was wondering when people would see the bible story played out in GoT. I hope the Johovah’s Witness lady who came to see me and told me this story watched this scene. As she related the sacrificial tale to me (and I have no idea how she thought that was a good way to introduce her religion), she concluded that being able to mourn your virginity for a couple of months showed “that there are benefits” as she blithely turned the page. My bet is that the Christians who watched the GoT scene, shook their heads and talked about false God’s and pagan practices. My bet is that when they learn of Bath Jephthah, they will find a way to accept it and praise God in his wisdom which is beyond their understanding. My bet is that they will never see that the Lord of Light and their God is one in the same.

  • If you think that George Martin is a better writer than the author of Koheleth or Tehilim or Shir Hashirim, you know nothing about literature.

  • Jim Reed

    I’m not familiar with those, but I think today’s literature and movies beats the Old Testament and New Testament stories.

  • Google is your friend.

    The books I listed are from the Hebrew Bible.

    We’re not talking about “todays literature.” We are talking about Game of Thrones, a work of pulp fantasy.

    Don’t give up your day job for literary criticism.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    I don’t believe the anecdote in Judges is interpreted by modern Jews (or even Second Temple Era Jews) as referring to literal child sacrifice. A ban on such sacrifice is traditionally said to occur during the Binding of Isaac in Genesis.

  • Whiskyjack

    Reading the account in Judges, it’s really, really hard to read it any other way than a literal child sacrifice. However, I have every confidence that creative exegetes can interpret it differently.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Since I don’t watch American TV anymore, I don’t have a clue about this show. OK, TV is a visual, audio and movement art form, usually fiction. But, watch it enough and it may rearrange your brain cells as in other media tools such as a smarthphone and similar devices. Not to mention, TV knows to generally keep the thinking down to an eight th grade level. This piece left me dumbfounded and made me remember watching live when in 1964 Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down in that police garage. That might have been the first time TV showed death on live TV up close and personal. Of course we all knew he was already judged and then executed. I wondered how many of us were not shocked. I was sixteen and very shocked. So now are we mainly numb? The shock of this TV fictional killing probably will not last long and thus the writers will have to up the anity even more. e.e. cummimgs wrote in one of his poems, “Those who cannot take it standing up will surely take it lying down.” ( p.s. I stream what I want)

  • Michael

    I’m not disagreeing, but I wouldn’t belittle one of the most well-written, thoughtful, and captivating fantasy series of all time. As far as adult fictional literature goes, A Song of Ice and Fire is considered to be the modern Tolkein equivalent. And, on a personal basis, is more entertaining than the Hebrew Bible. Has also caused few deaths than the Christian Bible, both directly and indirectly.

  • clasqm

    In the Iliad, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia. Seems to be a common theme in ancient literature!

  • lsomers

    Sacrificing a child is part of the orthodox Christian myth of salvation by suffering and death. It is a horrific part of our inheritance and one that needs to be completely renounced. The besetting evil of Christianity is the glorification of suffering and death as redemptive in and of itself. It isn’t. It never has been. It never will be. And until this evil at the heart of Christianity is exorcised, it will be crippled and it will not be the religion of peace it would like to be. If you want a real religion of peace try Jainism.

  • I dont want the show, but I dont know why so many people would be upset, its not pro-woman, pro-gay, pro-Muslim….and those are what usually disturb many it seems.

  • William Calhoun

    I understand why people are upset by this scene, but I don’t understand why no one has made the obvious connection: this was not a once-in-a-while horror. This is what Kings do. This is what all Kings do. This is what every claimant to the throne of Westeros has done in one way or another. Whether to innocent men, women, children (“collateral damage”, obscene phrase) or combatants on one side or another.
    “I am the King and I will send you to your death for the sake of the Kingdom, which I embody.”
    In mythical Westeros or all-too-real Earth, this is business as usual.

  • William Calhoun

    I’m not sure he’s claiming to know anything about literature. The standards today aren’t “excellence”, but “entertainment”.

  • William Calhoun

    It’s one of those irritating “grey areas”. Was it child sacrifice ? Of course, but the main characters could probably claim “not intended as such, so it doesn’t count”. Just as we can ask “Considering the blood spilled during it’s history, can we place the credit for America’s success to 200+ years of human sacrifice?”

  • Tyrion

    Look at you trying to stir up trouble where there is none. Big up yourself.

  • cranefly

    What should bother us is that Archbishop Cordileone is watching this thinking it’s the news, and saying to himself, “See, that’s what you get when you have female priests: child burning.”

  • apotropoxy

    If you believe you can propitiate your god with offerings of torture and death, and that the more repulsive the event the more gratified your god is, you are mentally ill, a member of the Abrahamic faith tradition or both.
    Modern religionists rarely sacrifice humans for sacred purposes but they will proudly cause themselves discomfort and derive gratification from it. (Think Lent, Ramadan, the Get [Judaic divorce ritual].)
    Capital punishment is the community’s collective sacrifice of justification.

  • Kelly

    Unless one is in a horror movie, capital punishment merely ensures the bad guy won’t do it again.

  • Ironic, both because an earlier story depicts an end to human sacrifice (Abraham’s) and because another earlier one really did supply a grievable life when Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to avoid the consequences of his own transgression. There seems to be enough religious message that parents should not do that — and that the gods will stop them if they do — that the story Richler-Levine recounts could reasonably be expected to have pasted in from another myth.

    I love the line, “Do we, like Stannis,think that violence is simply our national fate?”. It surely is relevant that Stannis is not sacrificing himself for the king’s blood demanded there, just as in the other stories the man in charge only sacrifices others. I don’t think violence is my national fate — but then, I am relatively powerless and not privileged to decide otherwise.

  • Frank

    Each week people sacrifice over 27k of their unborn children mostly for reason of convenient and comfort. But hey that’s moral right?

  • apotropoxy

    uh… I think you meant to type fetuses and zygotes and your elbow slipped.

  • Frank

    No, unborn children is correct. Trying to sterilize the language only exposes the moral bankruptcy of your position.

  • apotropoxy

    Ah… so then unborn teenagers, unborn adults, unborn elderly and unborn cadavers should be equally descriptive.
    What happened to unborn babies and unborn infants? Why did you skip directly from fetus to child?

  • Camera Obscura

    One of the commentators I read on the story from Judges points out it comes in the midst of a series of disasters among people who have become so corrupted by continual war and greed by rulers that they have sunk to practicing child sacrifice in the very fashion of the worshipers of Baal. I don’t think it’s considered as any kind of moral example to be followed but an example of the extremely bad idea of making rash vows even in the most trying of times.