As always, dear readers, welcome.
Since I began teaching World Civilizations, a number of years ago, this image, which I’ve used in discussing the elaborate nature of Egyptian funerary beliefs and practices, has always struck me, both for its sheer beauty and for its complex meaning.
It comes from a kind of instruction manual, a so-called “Book of the Dead”, the goal of which was to aid the deceased through the process of judgment and (with luck) into the afterlife. This version dates from about 1300BC, at the time of the 19th Dynasty (one of two methods for laying out ancient Egyptian history is by ruling family, the other being by Kingdoms and Intermediate Periods) and is in the British Museum.
The figure to the far left is Hunefer, an important court official for a very important pharaoh, Seti I.
Important as he is, Hunefer still must face the Judgment to determine whether he is worthy of passing to the afterlife. The main focus of the judgment is the weighing of Hunefer’s heart on the scales of the goddess Ma’at, who is the patroness of justice, which, to Egyptians, meant attaining a proper behavioral balance.
(She is sometimes represented as having wings
which I would guess suggests that she is omnipresent.)
Hunefer is being led to the judgment by Anubis, who acts as the overseer, as well as administrator of the weighing. Hunefer’s heart is represented by the jar on the left pan of the scales. On the other pan stands the feather of Ma’at (who is also represented in miniature on top of the center of the scales). The point of the weighing is to see if Hunefer’s behavior, represented by the heart, in life has been just—in Egyptian belief, in balance—and the feather (from an ostrich), which is not so light as it seems, is the symbol of the goddess.
If the pans are equal, Hunefer will progress beyond the weighing. If the heart sinks, it is then consumed by that very sinister creature just under the right-hand pan, Ammit, who has the head of a crocodile, the front legs of (here) a lion (other legs are possible), and the rear legs of a hippopotamus. The judgment is then recorded by Thoth, the god of, among other things, literacy, who is standing to the right of the scales (and is Ma’at’s partner among the gods). If the heart is devoured, all chance for a life beyond the grave is gone and the soul is lost. Fortunately for Hunefer, his heart and the feather have the same weight and we can see him further on being conducted by Horus (who is the pharaoh himself in divine form) to an audience with the ruler of the Underworld, Horus’ father, Osiris, mother, Isis, and Isis’ sister, Nephthys.
Just as there is a goddess of balance among the ancient Egyptians, there is also a divinity for its opposite, chaos, called Isfet/Asfet. So far, I haven’t found an ancient image of her, but here’s her name in hieroglyphs.
Thus, with the potential for Isfet, Ma’at’s scales represent a safe middle ground, where justice is achieved by a careful balance and which is then a defense against the chaos which would come if people not properly monitored could behave in any way which they wished, to the harm of others.
When I see justice as balance, and injustice as chaos, I’m immediately reminded of the Greek concept of dike (DEE-kay), as we see it first appearing in Aeschylus’ (EH-skih-lus c.525-455BC)
trilogy, the Oresteia (or-es-TYE-uh 458BC).
(an early printed edition from Antwerp, 1580)
Initially, dike clearly implies eye-for-eye revenge, but, as we’ll be shown through three plays in succession, this leads to a kind of societal imbalance—a bloody chaos: where will vengeance ever stop?
If you don’t know the plays, they are Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides (a nice name for The Furies, as we’ll see). The basic plot which runs through these dramas is the following:
1. while Agamemnon, high king of the Greeks, has been off fighting at Troy, his wife, Clytemnestra, remaining in Argos, has been having a long-time affair (7 years) with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin, as well as grieving for her daughter, Iphigenia (or so she claims), ruthlessly sacrificed by her husband to obtain the wind he needs to sail to Troy. (He had offended Artemis, who withheld the wind until he offered his daughter as recompense for his behavior.)
(In case you’re worried, this wall painting from Pompeii offers an ancient alternative, where, at the last minute, Artemis substitutes a stag for Iphigenia, carrying her off to become her priestess in far away Taurus, where she becomes the subject of Gluck’s (1714-1787) beautiful and striking 1779 opera Iphigenie en Tauride—which you can hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTgmncbsqzg )
2. when Agamemnon comes home to Argos, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill not only Agamemnon, but his Trojan captive, Cassandra,
and the surviving men from his Trojan expedition (which, after being away for ten years in Agamemnon’s service, must have seemed like a particularly rotten end). This brings us to the conclusion of Agamemnon.
(The play’s description of the murder, as more or less depicted here, differs from that in Book 4 of the Odyssey, where the killing happens at a feast, instead of by a bathtub.)
3. in The Libation Bearers, some years later, Agamemnon’s son, instructed by Apollo, returns to Argos and, with the aid of his cousin, Pylades, kills both Aegisthus
and his mother, Clytemnestra.
This act of revenge, however, doesn’t end the play as the Furies, spirits who hunt down those guilty of kin-murder, now appear to Orestes and it’s clear that, though no human may attack him for the murder of his mother, there are otherworldly beings who will.
4. with the opening of the third play, The Eumenides, we see Orestes having taken refuge at Apollo’s shrine at Delphi (after all, it was Apollo who encouraged him to seek revenge), but surrounded by the Furies.
With Apollo’s help, he escapes to Athens, where, when he appeals to Athena, she sets up the first trial: 12 unbiased (she must hope) Athenian citizens as a jury to try Orestes for murder. Considering the complicated circumstances, it’s not surprising that it’s a hung jury: 6 to 6. Athena then adds her vote for acquittal and Orestes is free—but the Furies are outraged: they are the spirits of vengeance—what will happen to them—and worse, to revenge, at least for kin-slaying—if they are replaced by this new system? Athena then tells them that they will now have a new job description: overseers of justice, with a new name: Eumenides, “the Kindly Ones”.
And, with this, we see a new definition of dike: not the chaos of endless vengeance, but civil justice, which brings a new balance to the world. (I almost wrote “to the Force”—but, certainly, Darth Sidious, as the Emperor Palpatine, has seriously brought the entire galaxy into an unbalanced condition, beginning with the murder of most of the Jedi, who are the traditional guardians of order—that is, balance–the overthrow of the Senate, and his new brutal police state.)
Using this idea of balance versus chaos, I approached the final episodes of A Game of Thrones. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that my approach to such complex visual narratives as this or the whole 9 Star Wars films (minus Rogue One and Solo) is not to praise or condemn (although I’ll definitely praise what I believe to be good work), but rather to try to understand what the creators wanted to present and how successful I thought they were (see two postings on the Obi-Wan miniseries: “Obi Won? (One)”, 6 July, 2022, and “Obi Won? (Two), 13 July, 2022, for an example of this method). I usually avoid reading negative criticism, as well, because, commonly, it’s mostly invective, and therefore not really helpful to anyone.
In the case of Thrones, its eighth and final season attracted a great deal of such invective and I admit that, the first time I saw the series, I began that last season, then stopped, as I knew just enough to dread what might be coming next. In a second viewing, this summer, however, I watched it all the way through–with the concept of balance in mind. (I’m assuming by the way, that, by now, there’s no reason for a “spoiler alert”here.) As I did so, I tried to imagine what it was that the creators had intended for the conclusion.
From the beginning, Daenerys Targaryen,
along with Jon Snow,
and Tyrion Lannister,
seemed to me the characters I most wanted to know more about. In their various ways, they were the underdogs: Daenerys, sold by her brother to a barbarian horse lord in order to gain an army; Jon Snow, the bastard of a major nobleman condemned to a celibate life at what was termed “the end of the world”; Tyrion, always condemned simply because he was a dwarf.
As the series progressed, we saw Daenerys grow and gradually become a powerful figure, not only because she had three dragons at her back,
but also because she was eternally resilient—no setback ever really set her back, beginning with her survival as the widow of the horse lord and progressing to her massing an army to free the thousands of slaves in cities along her route west towards the Narrow Sea. There were, at the same time, some disturbing moments: although she was adamant about ending slavery, she was equally so about becoming the queen of all seven kingdoms of Westeros and, when she finally managed to reach that island, her behavior seemed to become increasingly over-focused upon that ambition. In a word, she was gradually becoming unbalanced—and this is what I believe the creators intended us to see. From the pawn of the opening of the series to Series 8, Daenerys had grown, certainly, but there was always that disturbing undercurrent, much of it based upon her increasing insistence that she be obeyed unquestioningly.
(I’m reminded here of Alexander the Great, who began by treating his men as comrades, but, after he had mastered the Persian empire, began to demand that, when people came into his presence, they should throw themselves to the floor in the gesture called proskynesis, which we can see here being performed before one of Alexander’s Mesopotamian predecessors.)
This reached the point where, even though she knew that all of Westeros was threatened by the coming of the White Walkers over the Wall to the north, and that their victory meant a kind of living death for every human,
she would only ally herself with the forces in the North, led by Jon Snow, another underdog who had done very well for himself, if he acknowledged her position as his queen.
This obsession then progressed to the point that, with the White Walkers defeated, Daenerys demanded that all would now march to the south to take the throne of the Seven Kingdoms for her, beginning with the capital, King’s Landing.
When this did not go quite as planned and Daenerys was forced to witness the murder of her closest friend and confidante, Missandei,
she uses her remaining dragon to destroy the capital city and most of its inhabitants, something which Tyrion, now one of her counselors, had begged her not to do.
Tyrion himself has gone the opposite route. Initially, he had begun the series as a drunken, womanizing loser, bitterly hating himself.
By Season 8, he had, after several years of horrific events (including strangling the woman he had loved, but who had betrayed him, and killing his own father), gained some balance, so that his obvious intelligence was matched by a sort of calm, thoughtful decency, encouraged by another calm, decent character, Lord Varys.
Varys had begun under a cloud, being spymaster to a succession of kings, but he, too, has progressed towards balance. Unfortunately for him, this balance has led him to see what Daenerys was becoming in her all-consuming ambition, which brings him to plotting to overthrow her and to his death by dragon, leaving Tyrion alone to watch Daenerys gradually fall into the same kind of tyrannical mindset as the Emperor Palpatine, obsessed with control. (In fact, at this point, she admits that, as she will never be loved, as sovereign, she will rule by fear—another step towards the Dark Side.)
Ma’at and her feather signify balance in ancient Egypt and dike comes to mean balance in the Greek world, so what can bring balance to the world of Westeros? Once King’s Landing is in ruins and Daenerys’ chief enemy, Queen Cersei, has been destroyed,
it seems Daenerys will only go on, terrorizing with her dragon, until the whole world, of which Westeros is only a part, will be subjected to her increasingly brutal approach to monarchy. Tyrion sees this, as Lord Varys had before him,
and he now takes action, but, being Tyrion, it is indirect action. He prompts Jon Snow, who has not only become Daenerys’ vassal, but her lover, pointing out the danger of a queen so obsessed with domination, and pushing him to draw the only possible conclusion—balance can only be restored if she is removed, permanently.
As I tend to avoid invective, I can only guess that this was a major feature of the wave of criticism which washed over Season 8, and, having found her initially such a sympathetic character, I can understand such a reaction: did this have to be the end for her?
As I wrote earlier, however, I try always to understand what it is that the creators are aiming for and, after seeing Daenerys’ vengeful swoops over King’s Landing,
and remembering her expressing her belief that she would have to rule by fear, what would the world be like if she were allowed to do so? The very chaos in the world which was the opposite of the rule of Ma’at, certainly.
In the ancient Egyptian world, everyone’s behavior in life was literally weighed,
and the consequences for a life which didn’t balance were extreme, but unbalanced people, in the Egyptians’ view, would be wicked people and would deserve what happened to them after death, as they would have caused so much harm in this world.
In ancient Greece, the dramatist Aeschylus elaborated upon the myth of how old dike, vengeance which brought only brief balance before the cycle began again, was replaced by a new definition, in which the cycle could be stopped by a new dike, law in an impartial court, whose judgment would replace vengeance with justice and there would be no return to the cycle and its potential endless damage.
In the case of Daenerys, who, dead, is carried off by her remaining dragon,
she undergoes no trial in this world and we have no idea of what judgment she may then have undergone in any world beyond, but her end brings order once more to war-torn Westeros and perhaps that’s reason enough to justify what the creators of A Game of Thrones decided upon for a conclusion.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
And know that, as always, there’s