As we reach the halfway point of the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, you might find yourself becoming better acquainted with some of the terminology of Westeros. While much of “the Common Tongue” is similar to ours, there are a plethora of words, phrases, places and events which can sometimes confuse the newer viewer, especially if said viewer has not yet read the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels.
What you’ll find here is a compilation of terms, places and things that should help you navigate the world of Game of Thrones, laid out for you… alphabet style. Characters have not been included, as we could truly devote a whole alphabet to the characters of the series alone. I tried to keep to words that are relevant to the HBO series, specifically, yet still keep it relevant to the newer book reader. I wish you well on your trip to Westeros and beyond, and may the Seven bless you and keep you on your journey!
A – A Song of Ice and Fire: The series of books by George R.R. Martin upon which the HBO Series is based. Of the seven planned books, there are currently five books that have been published: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. In addition, there are three prequel novellas available, The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword and The Mystery Knight. Martin is currently hard at work (we hope!) writing book 6, which will be entitled The Winds of Winter. The seventh, and most likely final book will be called A Dream of Spring, however, Martin has been very clear that he will write as many volumes as it takes to finish the story, and will not alter the material to fit into a set number of books.
B – Bastards: An illegitimate child, a bastard is born to parents who are not married at the time of the child’s birth. Some prefer to use the more polite term for bastard, ‘natural son,’ or ‘natural daughter.’ If both of the child’s parents are not nobles, the term used is ‘baseborn’. In each of the Seven Kingdoms, bastards are given a specific surname which will set them apart from their father’s house. The surnames by region are as follows, the North – Snow, the Vale – Stone, the Riverlands – Rivers, the Iron Islands – Pyke, the Stormlands – Storm, the Westerlands – Hill, the Reach – Flowers, the Crownlands – Waters, Dorne – Sand. An example of this practice is Jon Snow, whose surname labels him bastard born and not a true son of Eddard Stark. It is possible for the father of a bastard to acknowledge a bastard, making him a legitimate member of his house.
C – Castellans: A Catstellan is a title given by a Lord to a warden or caretaker of his castle, in most cases when the lord is away from his castle on a short or long term basis. This title commonly combines the inner workings of the castle, as well as the military defense of the castle and holdings. Examples of castellans of Westeros are Brynden Tully (Riverrun), Ramsay Snow/Bolton (The Dreadfort), Rodrick Cassel (Winterfell), and Maester Luwin (Winterfell).
D – Dragons: For the last 150 years, dragons were thought to be extinct. Prior to that, they were found on the continents of Westeros and Essos. Dragons are bipedal and have two wings and are covered with scales. When first hatched, they are close to the size of a cat, but can grow to be as large as to be able to swallow a mammoth. Daenerys Targaryen’s three dragons were hatched through her sacrifice of life for life, and Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal became the first dragons to be hatched since the reign of King Aegon III.
E – Eunuchs: A Eunuch is a man who has been castrated or emasculated, usually as a slave, or as a form of punishment. Castration can occur either prior to, or after puberty. Notable eunuchs include Lord Varys, The Unsullied and Strong Belwas.
F – Free Cities: The Free Cities are composed of nine city-states on the western edge of the eastern continent. They can be reached by sailing across the Narrow Sea, east of Westeros. They are engaged in active trade with the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The nine free cites are Pentos, Braavos, Lys, Qohor, Norvos, Myr, Tyrosh, Lorath and Volantis.
G – Giants: Covered with thick pelts of fur that grow thicker below the waist, possessing sloping chests and arms longer than their legs, giants stand roughly ten to twelve feet tall. Giant’s faces appear squashed in and they have very poor eyesight, possibly due to having tiny, pushed in eyes. They need no shoes, as their feet are extremely tough. It is difficult to tell the female giants from the males. They live in the northernmost parts of Westeros and their spoken language is the Old Tongue of the First Men.
H – Hand of the King: The Hand is the King’s chief advisor and the person who is appointed to administer the King’s command in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Thought to be the second most powerful man in the realm, it is said that some Hands have even ruled the Kings that they were said to serve. While in service, the Hand resides in the Tower of the Hand, located in the Red Keep. The Hand of the King has the ability to act in the King’s stead, if the King is indisposed. Noteworthy King’s Hands: Eddard Stark (Robert Baratheon), Jon Arryn (Robert Baratheon), and Tyrion Lannister, (acting Hand, Joffrey Baratheon) Tywin Lannister (Joffrey Baratheon).
I – The Iron Price: Taken from the culture of the Ironborn and their worship of the Drowned God, the Iron Price refers to the taking of possessions from someone one has defeated, instead of paying for it with gold or goods. It is considered weak or shameful to pay other than the Iron Price. The Ironborn consider it correct to take what they need.
J – Jesters: Jesters or fools are employed to entertain the King, or ruler, and his court. Jesters tend to wear brightly colored clothes in motley patterns and perform a variety of tricks, songs, rhymes, music, storytelling, and acrobatics to entertain the court. Notable jesters in the series are Moonboy, ‘Ser’ Dontos Hollard, and Patchface.
K – Kinslayer: The slaying of one’s own kin is considered a terrible deed in Westeros. Once labeled a kinslayer, that man or woman is shunned, believed to be cursed, and the saying “No man is so accursed as the Kinslayer” is known by lords and smallfolk alike.
L – Lord Commander: Lord Commander is the highest ranking official in multiple Westerosi organizations. Lord Commander is the overseer of, and has the final authority in decision making within, his own organization. Included in these organizations are Night’s Watch (Jeor Mormont), and the Kingsguard (Barristan Selmy, Jaime Lannister). The leader of the City Watch can also be titled Lord Commander, or in the case of Janos Slynt, Commander, as he was not of noble birth at the time of his service.
M – Maester: The Maesters, sometimes called “Knights of the Mind,” are an order of healers, scholars and learned men. They pursue scientific and intellectual knowledge at a school called the Citiadel located in Oldtown. Although they are a secular organization, they must swear sacred oaths to serve their order. Maesters often serve in an advisory capacity to the nobles of Westeros. Grand Maester is the title given to the Maester who serves the King on the Iron Throne and resides in the Red Keep. The Grand Maester also sits on the King’s small council. Maester Luwin (Winterfell), Maester Aemon (Castle Black), Maester Cressen (Dragonstone), Grand Maseter Pycelle (King’s Landing) all have appeared on the HBO series.
N – The Night’s Watch: The Night’s Watch is a military group that serves to defend the Wall, a massive, seven hundred foot structure which is constructed of ice and runs three hundred miles across the northern border of Westeros. It is the job of the Night’s Watch to hold the Wall, defending the Seven Kingdoms against invasions of Wildling tribes, the Others, and whatever else may exist beyond the kingdoms of men. The men of the Night’s Watch must swear an oath which forbids them marriage, family and possession of land. Brothers of the Night’s Watch serve for life and deserters are sentenced to death. It is customary for brothers of the Night’s Watch to dress in black, a tradition which has resulted in their nickname of “Crows.”
The beautiful and haunting Oath of the Night’s Watch goes like this: “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all nights to come.”
O – The Others: Also known as “White Walkers,” the Others are a strange race of creature mentioned in the myths, legends and ancient tales of Westeros. Taller than human men, gaunt, pale and wrinkled, the Others have thin white hair and ice blue eyes. They are said to kill anyone they encounter, reanimating the dead as an army of “wights” who prey on the living. It is believed that they can smell the living, or perhaps sense their warmth. While not seen for more than eight thousand years, it is believed by some, particularly the Wildlings, that the Others have returned.
P – Potions and Poisons: Potions and poisons are frequently mentioned and much used on the continent of Westeros and beyond. Although there are several of both potions and poisons referred to, a few example of these substances are: Moon Tea, used to prevent or abort pregnancies, is a tea made up of tansy, mint, wormwood, a spoonful of honey and pennyroyal. Milk of the Poppy both a pain killer and as a type of anesthetic, which causes the patient to fall asleep very quickly, even if those who are badly wounded or in terrible pain. Sweetsleep can be used in small doses to control fits; however, when given three doses of Sweetsleep, the receiver will never wake. As a poison, Sweetsleep delivers a painless death. The Tears of Lys is an odorless, tasteless, virtually undetectable poison which eats away at the bowels and belly. Rare and expensive, this poison is hard to come by, but extremely effective.
Q – Qarth: A magnificent city on the south coast of the continent of Essos, Qarth is sometimes known as the “Queen of Cities.” Qarth is an ancient port city claiming a central location between Westeros, the Free Cities, Slavers Bay and the Eastern lands such as Asshai, The Shadow Lands and Yi-Ti. A center of commerce for centuries and a city of extreme wealth, Qarth is filled with grand architecture, which is painted in shades of violet, rose and umber. The city is ruled by the Pureborn, who sit in the Hall of a Thousand Thrones and are descendants of the ancient kings and queens of Qarth. It should be said, however, that the city’s three powerful merchant guilds, the Thirteen, the Tourmaline Brotherhood and the Ancient Guild of Spicers all play a role in the governance and politics of the city.
R – R’hollor: R’hollor, a god who is widely worshiped in Essos, is also known as The Lord of Light and The Red God. The religion is based around the worship of R’hollor, the god of light, heat and flame. R’hollor is said to be in constant battle with the forces of darkness, cold and death. Fanatical followers of the Lord of Light believe that “false” gods of other religions should be cast down and burned. According to ancient prophecy, from the books of Asshai, a chosen warrior, “The Prince that was Promised,” will be reborn “amidst smoke and salt” to lead the fight against darkness, and will wield a magical sword called “Lightbringer.” Priests and priestesses of R’hollor are called Red Priests, due to their red robes. Notable Red Priests of Rhollor are Thoros of Myr and Melisandre of Asshai.
S – Sellswords: Sellswords are mercenary fighters or soldiers for hire, who sell their service to the highest bidder. Said to have no loyalty, sellswords are usually experienced fighters or professional soldiers. Some sellswords organize themselves into companies, such as the Brave Companions or the Golden Company, while others, like Bronn, work as individuals. The term freerider is sometimes used to refer to a mounted sellsword, and sellsail for a mercenary sailor.
T – Tourneys: A Tournament, or Tourney, is a sporting or military event, usually consisting of chivalrous competitions and mock fights for sport, practice or to show off one’s skill and ability. Tourneys often consist of sports such as jousting, archery, and the melee, a somewhat disorganized fight in which warriors separate into two sides and come together in a charge, with each man fighting as an individual. Tourneys are extremely important in the history of Westeros and are mentioned many times in the series of novels. The Hand’s Tourney was featured during Season 1 of the HBO series, and it is likely we will hear more about The Tourney at Harrenhal before the television series is finished.
U – The Unsullied The Unsullied are fully castrated eunuch slave soldiers who are often used as guards in and around the Free Cities. Former slaves, the Unsullied begin their training at the age of five, and are chosen for possessing speed and strength. Training from sunrise to sunset, they learn to become great fighters, and in the process, are taught to obey without question. Only one in three Unsullied survive their training, as if they should fail at any stage, they are killed. At every meal, the Unsullied drink an elixir called the Wine of Courage, which kills their sensitivity to pain, over time.
V – Valyrian Steel: A rare and valuable magical alloy that was invented in Valyria and is used to forge weapons of exceptional quality. Spells and magic are worked into the steel, and the art of creating this magical alloy was lost when Valyria was destroyed. Valyrian Steel is stronger, lighter and more deadly sharp than even the best made blades in Westeros, and can be characterized by a distinctive rippling pattern. Some famous weapons forged from Valyrian Steel are Ice, Longclaw, and Oathkeeper.
W – Wildlings: Wildlings, or Free Folk, are the people who live on the continent of Westeros, north of the Wall. Hundreds of thousands of tribes, clans, villages and informal groups of Wildlings exist, living free of the reign of Kings and nobles. Wildling groups live by their own laws and choose their own leaders. Wildling women are free to fight and raid alongside their men and can often be fierce, skilled warriors. Forced to travel south as they flee from the Others, the Wildlings have become unified under Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall. Other Wildlings of note include Craster, Ygritte, Osha, Orell, The Lord of Bones, Tormund Giantsbane, and Val.
X – X-Cross (Saltire Cross): An X –Cross/Saltire Cross is a symbol used in heraldry, formed by the crossing of a bend (a colored band running from the upper right corner of a shield, to the lower left) and a bend sinister (a bend which runs in the other direction to a bend, from the upper left to the lower right). The X-Cross is also a common piece of equipment used as a torture device, generally providing restraint points for the ankles, wrists, and sometimes the waist. A narrow X-Cross/Saltire Cross used on HBO’s version of House Bolton’s flayed man sigil. The X-Cross is also as a torture device on the show. We see Theon Greyjoy strapped to an X-Cross for interrogation during Season 3 of the HBO series.
Y – Years After Aegon’s Landing: Roughly three hundred years prior to the events of A Game of Thrones, the continent of Westeros was invaded by Aegon I, who had led his people to the island of Dragonstone to escape the Doom of Valyria. Aegon I, also known as Aegon the Conqueror, accompanied by his two sister-wives, Rhaenys and Visenya and their three dragons, Balerion the Black Dread, Vhagar and Meraxes, successfully invaded Westeros. Upon his arrival, Westeros was divided into seven separate realms, the North, the Reach, the Westerlands, the Vale, the Stormlands, the Iron Islands and Riverlands, and Dorne. With the help of their dragons, Aegon and his sisters defeated six of the seven kings, uniting the six kingdoms under one banner. The site where Aegon the Conqueror first set foot on Westeros, became the capital city of King’s Landing. Later, Dorne was brought into the united Westeros, through a contract of marriage. This epoch event influenced the Westerosi calendar, Maesters and the educated of Westeros count the years in relation to the event of Aegon’s landing.
Z – Zorse: As the name suggests, a Zorse is a black and white striped animal in the equine family, and it is assumed they originated on the continent of Essos. It is inferred by Daenerys in Chapter 36 of A Game of Thrones, upon seeing some in the Eastern Market of Vaes Dothrak , that Zorses are bred by, or come from the plains of, the Jogos Nhai. Daenerys also calls Zorses “fierce,” leading us to believe they are not as tame as domestic horses. Although rare in Westeros, Zorses are also ridden by some of the sellsword members of the Brave Companions, in particular their captain, Vargo Hoat. I have to admit that I cheated a little on the letter Z, as we haven’t yet seen a Zorse on HBO’s Game of Thrones. I’m still holding out hope, though, as these are my favorite creature mentioned in the series!
This is not, by any means, a comprehensive list of terms in regards to the world of Game of Thrones; I’ve only just scratched the surface here. If you have a term that wasn’t included which you’d like to learn more about, feel free to comment below and I’ll see what I can do to help! And as always, the books contain so much fascinating information that isn’t included or explained in the HBO series, that I strongly urge you to read them, if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed!
MJ Snow is a Canine and avian behavior specialist by day; a role player, blogger and writer by night. A LONG time George RR Martin fangirl and Game of Thrones Addict, MJ spends way too much time in Westeros. MJ is the founder of The Snow Keep, a short story and fan-ficiton blog and The Brothers Clegane, a Sandor & Gregor Clegane tribute blog, she also co-curates several other Game of Thrones themed blogs.