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This is the third part of a four part (I, II, III, IV) look at the Dothraki from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s Game of Thrones. We’re looking at, in particular, the degree to which George R.R. Martin’s claim that the Dothraki are “an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures” holds up in the face of research. Last week, we looked at the subsistence systems of historical Steppe nomads and Great Plains Native Americans and found that the Dothraki subsistence system was less than a pale imitation of them, having stripped out nearly every activity from the daily routine of survival which wasn’t brutal or violent.
This week, we’re going to keep looking at the elements of culture beyond simple subsistence (with the caveat, noted last time, that subsistence systems often dictate over elements of culture). Necessarily, this is going to make this post a bit more of an omnium gatherum catch-all, with a bunch of discrete topics. In each case, it is going to make more sense to introduce the Dothraki practice and then contrast it the practices of the Great Plains and the Eurasian Steppe.
I want to note up front, we’re going to be talking here about slavery, sex, sexual violence, and regular violence, both as they occur in ASoIaF/GoT and how they occurred in the real world. I try to keep this blog mostly G-rated, but history itself wasn’t always G-rated and ASoIaF certainly isn’t; reader discretion is advised. In the interest of keeping clear which section is which, I have dropped my hilarious ‘An X of Ys’ joke section-title format and instead tried to give very descriptive section titles so you can decide if there is one or two you just want to skip.
Also, I want to note before we start that this post is going to be a bit more book-heavy than show-heavy, just because it is generally easier to pin down things which are explicitly said in the book rather than things implied by the visual language of the show. That said, I think the show, if anything, magnifies the characterization the book presents on each of today’s topics, either dialing them up to 11 or (in the cases where the books have oddly excluded things) making that exclusion more intentional and explicit given the different nature of film (since in a book, if an object is not described in a scene, we may assume it is still there and just undescribed; in a visual medium, if it is not seen, it is not there).
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Finally, as a reminder that we are not merely unfairly picking on some fantasy author who just wanted to create fictional societies without any tether to, or comment on, real societies which existed in the past or exist today, the key statement we are really assessing here is this one by George R.R. Martin:
The Dothraki were actually fashioned as an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… Mongols and Huns, certainly, but also Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy.
A statement which claims, quite directly, that the Dothraki are modeled primarily off of both Eurasian Steppe nomads and Great Plains Native Americans (with a ‘dash’ of fantasy).
A Collection of Cultures
(Ok, I had one more too-cute-by-half section title left)
The first thing to touch on here is not a cultural element but rather a fact about Dothraki culture, which is simply that: there is a ‘Dothraki culture.’ The Dothraki have a single language, a single holy city (Vaes Dothrak), a single system of social organization (Khals, etc), apparently a single set of dietary customs, a single religion with a well-understood prophecy of a future leader, and so on. In short, there is a single Dothraki culture which is shared by all of the various khalasars of the Dothraki Sea. Crucially this is not merely an observation made by characters outside of the Dothraki culture (that would be understandable – significant cultural divides are often invisible to outsiders who cannot mark the significance of ‘small’ differences), but is also a fact observed by the Dothraki themselves, explicit in things like the collective housing of all windowed khaleesi and even in the language the Dothraki use to talk about each other, especially in contrast to the Lhazareen and other non-Dothraki. This is a single culture without any real ethnic divisions and is regarded as such by its members, not just outsiders.
And that is nonsense.
Even if we only take the Eastern third of the Eurasian Steppe (the Eurasian steppe actually divides quite neatly in thirds, broken up by the Ural mountains (dividing the western and central steppe), and the Fergana Valley (dividing the central and eastern steppe)), we have not just the Mongols, but Tatars, Keraites, Naimans, Merkits, Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Khitans, and (sort of) Jurchen. Those are meaningful differences! There are, for instance, two entire distinct language families on the Steppe (I should note that there is some dispute here about the lines between language families, but my impression is that the consensus now is that the Mongolic and Turkic languages are not directly related as they were once believed to be), each containing a number of often non-mutually intelligible languages within them (the Turkic language family has some 35 documented languages). These groups were often not only linguistically distinct, but culturally and religiously distinct.
The Great Plains were no less varied! Isenberg’s chart (op. cit., 59) – mentioned last week and based on US Government data – lists Assiniboine, Atsina, Comanche, Blackfeet, Koiwa (and Kiowa-Apache), Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho as the nomadic peoples of the Great Plains (it also lists 11 more sedentary Native peoples). And that understates the variety because – remember – this is a survey from the outside which is going to miss significant variety (like not breaking out the Lakota from the Dakota, etc.)!
This brings us to two crucial points. The first problem is that the lack of cultural and lingustic variety is itself an error on Martin’s part. This isn’t quite a unique problem for the Dothraki – as I’ve noted, particularly with The North, many of the regions of Westeros are a lot less varied than they ought to be given their size – but it is more pronounced here. The Dothraki Sea is about as large on the map as all six of the Southern parts of the Seven Kingdoms, but has nowhere near the cultural diversity despite lacking a unifying government or hegemonic religion (as a rule, large nation-states are the product of state-building, not a prerequisite. To put it bluntly, France is full of French people because the government in Paris saw fit to make it that way. There is no such homogenizing institution in the Dothraki Sea). Again, I don’t expect Martin to bring the story to a screeching halt to discuss this, but think about how much the feeling of a real culture could have been enhanced even a little by having Khal Drogo’s army involve multiple ethnicities of Dothraki nomads, or to have him refer to equivalents of the Merkits or Tartars (we may call these non-existent cultures the Nopethraki) occupying other parts of the Dothraki Sea and possibly trading at Vaes Dothrak. Something just as simple as meeting other nomads either at the wedding or in Vaes Dothrak who spoke a different language (or given the size of Khal Drogo’s khalasaar, have him brag – as many historical rulers were want to do – about all of the many different Nopethraki peoples who also followed him).
The second problem this creates is for this post. While we have one fictional culture to compare, we have to compare it with dozens of real historical peoples – an obviously impossible task in this format (or probably any format). For the sake of keeping this manageable, I am going to reduce my points of comparison specifically to the Mongols (c. 1150-1250) and Sioux (also known as the ‘Seven Council Fires’ though note that this is also a diverse grouping, including the Lakota, Western and Eastern Dakota). Fortunately for me, these two sets are peoples specifically cited by Martin as inspirations for the Dothraki. Where relevant, I will jump to other groups, but we’ll mostly focus on these two. We are going to move topically to see how much the Dothraki are rooted in anything we can identify from these real historical cultures that supposedly inspired them.
Music and Art
Try as I might, I could not find any clear reference to Dothraki artwork. Vests are described repeatedly as painted (AGoT, 83, 193), but apart from the exceptional one made for Viserys (AGoT, 329), how they are painted doesn’t seem to ever be mentioned. One might fairly call Dothraki hair braiding and belling an art (AGoT, 30), but while the number of braids matters, it doesn’t seem like the quality or artistry is ever commented on. The statues that line the way to Vaes Dothrak are all captured, the “ancient monuments from all the lands the Dothraki have sacked” (AGoT, 324) and Vaes Dothrak itself lacks its own building style, instead being a mix of styles of peoples the Dothraki have enslaved (AGoT, 326-7). Drogo’s palace has just “rough-hewn timbered walls” and Daenerys smiles to herself at the contrast between the expected grandeur and the actual building (AGoT, 327), apparently devoid of decoration. It’s possible that the bride-gift weapons (AGoT, 86) were decorated – the materials in question were clearly lavish – but we are not told. Later, Daario Naharis has a decorated arakh (in the shape of a naked woman, because of course, ASoS, 482), but he is very much not a Dothraki. However, the contrast between the long descriptions his clothing and weapons get (ASoS, 476, 482) and the minimal description of the Dothraki is striking; Martin can give detailed descriptions of finery when he wants.
In stark contrast, actual ‘horse cultures’ – to the surprise, I suspect of no one – have well developed artistic traditions. In addition to what we’ve already seen of the intricate and finely decorated clothing of the Sioux, we should add painted scenes on tipis, pictographic histories called ‘winter counts‘ showing the events of a year. Likewise, we’ve already discussed traditional Mongolian clothing, which can be beautifully decorated. The Mongols had an art tradition too, especially in sculpture, with a very distinctive style of scroll-patterns and animal motifs dating back into the bronze age! That the famous stone tortoises of Karakorum (Chinggis Khan’s capital and the clear inspiration for Vaes Dothrak) have been transformed into just the “plundered gods and stolen heroes” of other cultures (AGoT, 324), is quite disappointing.
I could find but one instance of Dothraki music – the chanting of the ‘crones’ of Vaes Dothrak (AGoT, 410-1), accompanied by a war horn and later drums. Martin does not relate the words of that chant to us or its content (likely because Daenerys does not know), instead choosing to describe the “withered dugs [that is, breasts]” of the old women “sway[ing] back and forth, shiny with oil and sweat” (AGoT, 410). I will admit, I found myself questioning this authorial choice in what in this particular moment ought to have been described. But Khal Drogo doesn’t sing. None of the male Dothraki seem to sing. They do not recite poetry, not engage in clever wordplay. There is, it seems, not one ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad among them.
By contrast, the Sioux have a complex music tradition (as, of course, do other Great Plains Native Americans), with multiple genres performed in different ways for different occasions – war songs, songs to tell stories, songs of religious import or ritual function and so on. Anthony McGinnis also notes how oratory was an important part of diplomatic rituals between native peoples and was quite developed, with meetings that “consisted of many elaborate orations, an art form at which the plains Indians excelled. These flowery, metaphorical speeches continued for hours…” (McGinnis, op. cit. 86, concerning an 1851 peace meeting between the Shoshonis and Cheyenne at Fort Laramie).
Likewise, the oldest surviving work of Mongol literature, The Secret History, preserves even older passages of poetry common on the Mongols. Sets of alliterative verses, üligers, also demonstrate an oral literature built around poetry from before we have written evidence (the Mongols, like many nomadic peoples, adopted or developed writing relatively late and it is always, as an evidentiary matter, difficult to peer back through the earliest of writing into the yet older oral tradition). The Mongolians also have a rich musical tradition, including refined instruments. The morin khuur (‘horse-fiddle’), is a two-string string instrument with the first string traditionally made of 130 hairs from a stallion’s tail and the second 105 hairs from a mare’s tail (the wiki link has a short sound sample of playing – it’s quite pretty. There’s also traditional folk morin khuur playing on youtube). There are wealth of forms of expressive culture on the Steppe.
Far from being brutish, unmusical and inarticulate, nomadic cultures tend to prize artistic and musical performance and expression. I brought up ‘Antarah before and while he is not from one of the cultures that Martin points to, he is a horse-borne nomadic warrior-poet. Where are the Dothraki victory songs? We have Drogo’s campfire described to us (AGoT, 191), but there are no songs, and only “women dance” while “men die” (from all of the murder, which we’ll get to in a moment). That doesn’t match the richness of cultural expression from actual nomadic cultures. Manly nomadic men played music, recited poetry, sung songs, danced dances, and gave orations. They were humans and engaged in human expressions of feeling! The Dothraki, as we’ll see, seem to lack many human qualities…
Leadership and Inheritance
We may quickly describe the Dothraki social organization; while we only see inside one traditional Dothraki khalasar, we are repeatedly told it is typical and may take it as such (AGoT, 83-5, 195, 328). Each group of Dothraki is led by a male war-leader called a khal (whose wife is a khaleesi and whose heir is the khalakka) in a group called a khalasar. The khal‘s personal guard are ‘bloodriders’ and are sworn to the khal and are supposed to kill themselves after he dies (AGoT, 328). The khalasar also has subordinate commanders called kos and smaller bodyguard units called khas (and at this point, you will forgive me a joke that I began to wonder if the Dothraki rode to battle on their khorses, drank out their khups and fought with khords, kows, and kharrows; it will surprise no one that Martin is not a linguist). The khal is the autocrat of this organization, he has a single, readily identifiable male heir who is his direct descendant (the khalakka) and should that heir be underage or not exist, the khalasar will disband. Strikingly, beyond the khal‘s male heir, family ties play no role at all in the organization of the khalasar or in relations between them.
This is not how horse-borne nomads organized themselves, although it bears a passing resemblance to some elements of pre-Chinggis Mongol organization. We can start by quickly ruling out the Great Plains as an inspiration and move from there.
I am not an expert in the organization of any Plains Native American society (so please forgive any errors – but do tell me, so I can make corrections – I am doing my best!), but from what I have been able to read, the key institution is not the ‘chief’ but rather the extended family network (what the Sioux call, I believe, the ‘thiyóšpaye’) which were then composed by smaller households (‘thiwáhe’). The elders of those households elected their leaders; while certain families seem to have been more prominent than others, leadership wasn’t directly heritable. Direct inheritance doesn’t seem to have been as pressing an issue; territorial claims were held by the nation or tribe (the ‘oyáte’) while moveable property was held by the household or extended family network (and personal items might be buried with the deceased).
I am being a bit schematic here to avoid outrunning my limited knowledge, but a system of kinship bonds with elected leaders coordinating the efforts of multiple ethnically or linguistically related kinship groups is a fairly common system for non-state social organization (obviously that label obscures a lot of cultural and regional variation!). This would have been a plausible enough way to organize the Dothraki, with lots of deliberative councils of household leaders and chiefs that are often shrewd political leaders, managing the interests of many households, but presumably that wasn’t badass enough. It would have involved lots of complicated political dialogue and quite a lot less random murder. In any event, it is clear the Dothraki are not organized along these lines; kinship matters functionally not at all in their organization and even when Daenerys is present, we see no deliberation, merely the authority of the khal, enforced by violence.
What about the Mongols and other Eurasian steppe nomads?
The Mongols and other steppe nomads were broadly organized into tribes (an ulus or ordu, the latter giving us the word ‘horde’ in reference to nomads) which were organized around a leader (for the Mongols, a khan or ‘chieftain’) and understood to be part of a given ethnic or linguistic grouping which might or might not be united politically at any given time. The position of khan was heritable, but with some significant quirks we’ll get to in a minute. In theory, these were kinship groups, but in practice the incorporation of defeated clans and sometimes shifting allegiances blurred those lines. Ratchnevsky (op. cit., 12-3) notes a divide within groups between the non-free captives (otogus bo’ol) and the free followers of a khan (nökhör or sometimes spelled nökhöd), but these categories were flexible and not ethnically based – individuals could and did move between them as the fortunes of war and politics shifted; Temujin himself – the soon-to-be Chinggis Khan – was at one point probably one of these bo’ol. The nökhör were freemen who could enter the service of a khan voluntarily and also potentially leave as well, living in the leader’s household. This is a rather more promising model or the Dothraki, but beyond this very basic description, things begin to go awry.
First off – and you will note how this flows out of the subsistence systems we discussed last week – inheritance does matter a great deal to the Mongols. Steppe nomads generally tended to share an inheritance system which – I have never seen it given a technical name – I tend to call Steppe Partible Inheritance (though it shares some forms with Gaelic tanistry and is sometimes termed by that name). In essence (barring any special bequests), each male member of the ruling clan or house has an equally valid claim on the property and position of the deceased. You can see how this would function where the main forms of property are herds of horses and sheep, which are easily evenly divisible to satisfy such claims. Divide a herd of 100 sheep between 5 sons and you get 5 herds of 20 sheep; wait a few years and you have five herds of 100 sheep again. And for most nomads, that would be all of the property to divide.
This partibility was one of the great weaknesses, however, of steppe empires, because it promoted fragmentation, with the conquests of the dynastic founder being split between their sons, brothers and so on, fragmenting down further at each succession (each inherited chunk is often called an appanage, after the Latin usage and often they were granted prior to the khan‘s death as administrative assignments). But overall leadership of the empire cannot be divided; in theory it went to the most capable male family member, though proving this might often mean politics, war or murder (but see below on the kurultai). Thus Attila’s three sons turned on each other and made themselves easy prey for what was left of the Roman Empire; Chinggis’ heirs did rather better, sticking together as regional rulers in a larger ‘family business’ run by the descendants of Chinggis until 1260 (Chinggis died in 1227), when they began to turn on each other. The Ottomans resolved this problem – seeing their empire as indivisible – through fratricide to avoid civil war. Note also here, how important knowing the exact parentage (or more correctly, patrilineal descent) of any potential descendant of the khan would be – we’ll come back to that.
On the surface, this might sound a bit like how Khal Drogo’s khalasar disintegrates on his death, but there are enough key wrinkles missing here that I think the match fails. The biggest difference is the importance of the larger kin group and biological inheritance. You will note above that the males of the entire royal family generally had claims on the titles and property of the deceased. And actual, patrilineal descent was important here – all of the successor states of the Mongols were ruled by rulers claiming direct descent from Chinggis Khan, down to the disestablishment of the Mughal Empire in 1857. If Khal Drogo has any extended family, they seem to be unimportant and we never meet them; they do not figure into to the collapse of his khalasar (AGoT, 633), whereas in a Mongol ulus, they’d be some of the most important people. Indeed, Drogo’s khalasar splits up with no regard at all to the ruling family, something that Jorah notes is normal – had there been a living heir, he would have been killed (AGoT, 591). This is obviously not true of the Mongols, because Temujin, the future Chinggis Khan himself (and his brothers), was exactly such young living heir of a powerful khan and was not killed, nor was any serious attempt apparently made to kill him (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 22) and Ratchnevsky notes that was unusual in this instance that Temujin’s mother was not supported by her brother-in-law (possibly because she refused to be remarried to him).
Moreover, succession to leadership was not automatic as it is portrayed in A Game of Thrones (either automatic in the way that Khal Ogo’s son Fogo could become Khal in the mere moments of battle between his death and his father’s, AGoT, 556 or automatic in how Drogo’s khalasar automatically disintegrates, AGoT, 591). Instead there was a crucial mediating institution, the kurultai (sometimes spelled quriltai), a council of chiefs and khans – present in both Mongol and Turkic cultural spheres – which met to decide who of the valid claimants ought to take overall leadership. Such kurultai could also meet without a succession event – Temujin was declared Chinggis Khan in the kurultai of 1206. There wasn’t typically a formal heir-designate as with the Dothraki, both because of the need for a deliberative kurultai but also because of the partible inheritance. It was rather exceptional when Chinggis designated Ögedei as his chief heir (as a way to avoid war between his other sons; Ögedei was the compromise candidate) in 1219.
We might imagine the kurultai upon the death of the Mongol version of Drogo would have been a complex affair, with political negotiations between Drogo’s brothers and uncles (should he have any) who might well use the existence of an heir as an excuse to consolidate power within the family, along with Drogo’s key lieutenants also seeking power. Of course we do not see those events because Daenerys is asleep for them, but we do hear them described and it is clear that the key factors in a Mongol kurultai – descent, family ties, collective decision-making – do not matter here. As Jorah notes, “the Dothraki only follow the strong” (AGoT 633) and “Drogo’s strength was what they bowed to, and only that” (AGoT, 591). There is no council – instead Drogo’s key lieutenants (all unrelated to him) take their chunk of followers and run off in the night. There is no council, no effort to consolidate the whole, no division of livestock or territory (because, as we’ve discussed, the Dothraki subsistence system considers neither and consequently makes no sense).
Likewise, the structures of Mongol control, either before or after Chinggis (who makes massive changes to Mongol social organization) are not here. Drogo’s horde is not the decimal-system organized army of Chinggis, but it is also not the family-kin organized, deeply status-stratified society that Chinggis creates the decimal system to sweep away. The Mongols did have a tradition of swearing blood-brothership (the Mongolian word is anda), but it only replicated strong reciprocal sibling alliances. It certainly came with no requirement to die if your blood-brother died, something made quite obvious by the fact that Chinggis ends up killing his blood-brother Jamukha after the two ended up at war with each other. And these relationships were not a form of ‘royal guard’ but intimate and rare. Instead, Chinggis intentionally assembled a personal guard, the keshig, out of promising young leaders and the relatives of his subordinates, both as a military instrument but also a system of control. Members of the keshig did not simply die after the death of their leader, but were bound to take care of the surviving family of the deceased ruler.
So apart from the observation that Steppe nomads tended to have singular leaders (but, of course, monarchy is probably the most common form of human organization in the historical period) and that they tend to fragment, almost nothing about actual patterns of Steppe leadership is preserved here. Not the basic structures of the society (the ‘nobles,’ kinship groups and larger tribal and ethnic groups which so dominated Temujin’s early life, for instance, see Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 1-88), nor its systems of inheritance and succession. Instead, most of the actual color of how Mongol society – or Steppe rulership more broadly – worked has been replaced with ‘cult of the badass’ tropes about how the Dothraki “only follow the strong,” only value strength and have essentially no other cultural norms.
Slavery and Trade
We covered the internal economies of horse-borne nomads last time, but what about the external economic interactions? We are repeatedly told that the Dothraki do not trade; they “did not truly comprehend this business of buying and selling” (AGoT, 325, 489-90; ADwD 662). Vaes Dothrak is a trading hub mostly out of tradition and not because the Dothraki use it, or even effectively tax it (AGoT, 490). That said, Dothraki khalasars which pass near the Slaver Cities instead give captives as a form of gift exchange; the scale here is significant, in the thousands (ADwD 661ff). We’re not generally told exactly what the Dothraki get in exchange (though the “rich fabrics and sweet perfumes” they put on in the Free Cities must be included, AGoT, 83), although the crones of Vaes Dothrak are given traditional gifts of ‘salt, silver and seed’ (AGoT, 490). But mostly, we are reminded, that the Dothraki are largely ignorant of trade and Dothraki men do not buy or sell.
It should not surprise anyone that actual nomadic peoples – whose way of life involves regular circuits over long distances (again, keeping in mind that nomads do not wander aimlessly as the Dothraki do, but move back and forth along regular routes in establishes territories) – tend to be canny traders, in stark contrast to the Dothraki who seem not to really understand the business, despite having been adjacent to it for centuries. Moreover, for both Steppe and Plains nomads, trade was not a merely luxury, but a necessary economic system, though trading and raiding often went together as different means to accomplish similar ends.
On the Great Plains, there were three different sets of goods being traded for, using two major ‘exports.’ The nomadic peoples of the Great Plains still needed some products of the more sedentary way of life they had abandoned; they also needed horses to hunt with (and also fight with) and before long firearms (along with gunpowder) as well in order to stay militarily competitive with their rivals. Firearms primarily came through the northern fur trade (Isenberg, op. cit., 40-53; Secoy op. cit. 43-44, 48-50) or through trading with other Native American peoples more directly integrated into the fur trade network. Horses were traded (or raided for) from the south, although later on – as noted last week – some southern tribes developed internal supply (Isenberg, op. cit. 45-6), while bison products were traded with sedentary tribes along the Missouri River for corn, beans, squash and other agriculture goods (Isenberg, op. cit. 46-7). No tribe could maintain an effective defense without trade since they needed both guns and horses, and as Isenberg notes, “For the nomads, trade with the villagers served to replace the ecological safety nets that they had abandoned by specializing as bison hunters [emphasis mine]” (Isenberg, op. cit. 47).
Note that while abductions and adoption, particularly of women and children, did play a role in Plains Native American warfare (McGinnis, op. cit. 42-3) – and we’ll come back to that in a moment – the trading of captives was never a major factor in trade or economic interaction; captives were incorporated, not traded away.
For the Eurasian Steppe, given that the famous silk road passed along the southern reaches of the Steppe, it should come as little surprise that steppe nomads generally understood trade and often knew to encourage it to their benefit. Like the Plains Native Americans, Steppe nomads were reliant on settled peoples for key components of their military system, specifically metal weapons and armor which nomads could not generally produce themselves. It is little accident that the Mongols, in their expansion over much of Eurasia, picked up and moved around local armor and weapon types (May, The Mongol Art of War, 52-4, n. 40, 42, 44, 46). Chinggis Khan and his successors went out of their way to encourage and safeguard trade, well aware of the benefits in terms of material access and revenue, even to the point of investing money in caravans or making business loans at low rates to encourage the development of trade routes (May, The Mongols, 68-71). The Mongols truly did comprehend ‘this business of buying and selling’ and were apt manipulators of it.
The peoples of the Eurasian Steppe were involved with slave trading as well. As noted above, Mongol society included the bo’ol, captives incorporated into the camp, who might end up living and working much like the other nomads but without the freedom to leave (although they might also be mistreated). Steppe warfare ‘threw off’ captives as well; this provided the supply, for instance, of the Turkish military slaves (who made up the largest contingent among enslaved soldiers, the mamluks) which were prominent in Muslims armies from the 9th century to the 16th. The Seljuk and Ottoman Turks both kept and traded slaves, both before and after taking up permanent residence as imperial powers off of the step, and the western splinters of the Mongol Empire, the Ilkhanate and the Golden Horde did so as well.
That said, the Steppe peoples doing this were not unique slavers swimming in a sea of free societies. In the period of the Mongol Empire, there was slavery in the Muslim world, slavery in India, and in Eastern Europe and in Central Europe, and in China. And of course the states of Western Europe would begin the process of importing the Mediterranean practice of slavery to the New World even before the last of the Mongol successor states (the Golden Horde, disestablished in 1502) faded. And this is the rub of the depiction of slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire. It is not so much a case of inaccuracy – many Steppe nomads were enslavers – but rather a case of unfortunate implications because of the way it is embedded in the larger world. Slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire is a unique institution of Essos only, being illegal in Westeros. The only major state of Essos were slavery is effectively banned is Braavos (which seems coded Northern Italian, which is strange because the Venetians and Genoese were big slave-traders). That leads to the deeply uncomfortable situation where all of the slavery in A Song of Ice and Fire is done both to and by all of the peoples coded (and sometimes, as with the Dothraki, explicitly described as) non-white, a visual characterization that the show adopts with distressing enthusiasm. Consequently, it is not that the Dothraki trading in slaves is wrong per se, so much as the lack of slavery in Westeros is.
But the larger problem here is that there is clearly no support here for the idea that nomads didn’t practice or comprehend buying or selling – historical nomads clearly did and could be fairly canny at trade, using it to survive and gain access to goods they couldn’t produce themselves.
Sex, Marriage and Rape
This is a difficult subject, but we cannot leave it out. The Dothraki are presented at sexually brutish, disposed to both rape and sexual slavery, when they aren’t cloaked in sexual exoticism. Illyrio tells us that “the Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds…they do not understand sin or shame as we do” (AGoT, 84-5) a statement we might take for his own view except that it is offered in the context of Dothraki men openly raping dancers at a wedding (we may argue about consent and social norms here, but “grabbed a dancer by the arm and pushed her down to the ground” doesn’t sound like consent to me, AGoT, 84). We are also told that Drogo “always took [Daenerys] from behind, Dothraki fashion [emphasis mine]” (AGoT, 191). Some khals supposedly share their wives with their bloodriders, (AGoT, 328 – and can we just note how stupid this idea is, given that this is a society where sons of khals inherit their rule patrilineally? Knowing exactly whose son the khalaka was would have been very important!); given that Drogo is apparently unconcerned that Daenerys cries during sex with him (AGoT, 191-2), one assumes this is not generally consensual either.
What makes this tricky is that there is a lot of sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire (actually more of it than in the show) and so a reader might argue that this is just how things are in this fictional universe. The Dothraki account for 12 of the 117 (!!) rape victims in A Song of Ice and Fire in that counting (which I’d argue is an under-count, as it omits what happens to the dancers at Daenerys’ wedding, AGoT, 84-5), about 10% of the total. This is despite the fact that the Dothraki appear (with their traditional culture) in just 11 of the 344 currently published chapters, just 3.1% of the books. Very roughly then, the Dothraki are three times as rapey as the average culture in A Song of Ice and Fire. So while on the one hand, all of the books are shot through both with Martin’s decision to build a fictional world with lots of rape and his deeply troubling tendency to, as one writer put it, “write from the point of view of the rapist,” on the other hand, the Dothraki seem to get more of this treatment than any other culture save perhaps the Ironborn. Consequently, compared to the other cultures of Westeros and Essos, the Dothraki are disproportionately associated with rape and sexual violence; it is hard not to notice how this plays into bad old cringe inducing Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans as a threat to white women on the frontier.
Of course the other defense that gets offered is that all of this rape is historically correct. And to be clear, that defense gets offered, because George R.R. Martin offers it. And as should surprise no one who has been keeping track of Martin’s dismal record of understanding actual historical societies, that defense is wrong. I am not going to rehearse the reasons it is wrong here, but merely note that we’ve discussed it on this blog, it has been discussed on other blogs, and by other scholars. The idea, advanced by Martin, that the truly stunning amount of rape – most of it not in the context of war – in A Song of Ice and Fire somehow reflects medieval social norms or a true vision of the past or particular cultures is to be rejected. Needless to say, it is not considered OK to just begin raping dancing women in either Great Plains Native American or Mongol cultures.
Violence and Murder
Finally, Martin’s Dothraki murder each other at an exceptionally high rate. I want to be clear here that what I am looking at are not acts of war, but rather killings in the settling of private disputes within the polity (that is, the khalasar). I have, for instance, excluded Drogo’s killing of two other khals in battle. We’ll deal with warfare in the final essay of this series. Instead, this is about the characterization that nearly all disputes within Dothraki society are settled by violence, that such violence is extremely common and consequently, the Dothraki treat life very cheaply indeed.
Again, keeping in mind that the entire Dothraki society as we see it is contained within just about 3% of the corpus of A Song of Ice and Fire, we are told: “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is deemed a dull affair” (AGoT, 85), that there at a dozen murders at Daenerys’ wedding, evidently primarily over sexual access to the dancers (AGoT, 85). At Khal Drogo’s nightly campfires he sat “watching women dance and men die” (AGoT, 191), reiterating the paired activities of a Dothraki wedding – women dancing and men killing each other over sexual access to those women. Jorah kills a Dothraki who insults him for wearing armor (AGoT, 556). Jhogo kills a Dothraki for not obeying Daenerys’ order not to rape the Lhazareen women, Aggo kills another moments later for the same reason (AGoT, 558). Then the burst of murderous violence as Drogo is ailing. Quaro is killed by Qotho (AGoT, 596) before Qotho is killed by Jorah (AGoT, 597), and then Rakharo kills Haggo and Aggo kills Cohollo (AGoT, 597). Later Mago and Jhaqo rape and murder Eroeh (AGoT, 634). And of course, Drogo has Viserys murdered quite brutally (AGoT, 418). That is a lot of murder. In just the year or so that we are with the Dothraki, nearly every named male character in the khalasar murders someone else in the khalasar.
Crucially, none of those murders are treated as even so much as a breach of decorum, much less a serious crime. Instead, again and again, we see that the way the Dothraki settle disputes is that they spit insults at each other and then the weapons come out and someone ends up dead.
That this is nonsense from a historical perspective should be fairly obvious to anyone who read the previous post on subsistence systems closely. Nomadic societies (either Plains or Steppe) had extremely low population densities, but also engaged in warfare where the raw number of warriors (nearly all free adult males) was the primary determinant of security. Consistently outnumbered, often dramatically so, by their sedentary neighbors, these societies were always pressed for good warriors or just population (male or female) in general. The big tribe was the safe tribe. Consequently, adoptive or assimilative warfare was important both on the Great Plains (McGinnis, op. cit. 42-3) and on the Eurasian Steppe (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 12-3). Good humans (especially ones who already knew how to survive as nomads) were a valuable resource not to be wasted! Moreover, raising a child to adulthood represented a substantial investment in resources in a subsistence system that always teetered on the edge of failure; throwing away that investment in a dispute would mean wasting all of those scarce resources. In short, nomadic societies could not afford the insanely high rates of internal violence and murder we see with the Dothraki.
That is not to say nomadic life was safe – there was (as we’ll get to next time) quite a lot of inter-nomadic warfare between different ethnic and tribal groupings. But within those groupings, it will surprise no one to learn that murder was frowned upon (and by ‘frowned upon’ I mean ‘punished harshly’). By way of example, Temujin (who would later become Chinggis Khan) might be expected, given his rise to power, to have been involved in at least his share of of murders if not more. But while he brought about the deaths of many people in war, Temujin seems to have only ever murdered once, when he killed his half-brother Bekhter over a theft. The result? Temujin and his other brother, Jochi-kasar were condemned as murderers by their mother and the episode may have led to Temujin’s captivity with the Tayichi’ut. In any event, the affair was sufficiently shameful for Chinggis that it was concealed in the official histories and only described – with some face-saving obfuscation – in the Secret History (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 23-7). Temujin’s later ally Toghrul had also killed a brother in a power-struggle and been exiled for it by his uncle and which remained a stain on his honor subsequently (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 32). Murder was hardly an approved of thing, because of course it wasn’t, because these are humans and humans don’t like murderers as a general matter!
But this characterization goes beyond just the legal matter of “can you just murder people in this society” to a question of how disputes are resolved. Among both Steppe nomads and Great Plains Native Americans, there were systems for resolving disputes without violence. The Sioux had ‘shirt-wearers’ whose job was, among other things, to resolve disputes between family units. In Mongol society, restitution for a slight or crime could be made with a fine (Ratchnevsky, op. cit. 45) or resolved through the intervention of the khan or other tribal leaders. And – as discussed – both Mongol and Great Plains native American society have lots of councils and kurultais and peace meetings and other ways of diffusing conflict by talking in deliberative gatherings. Again, that is not to say that there was no violence, only that these societies were very interested in controlling the violence and channeling it outwards against external enemies in war.
[Note that parts of this conclusion originally appeared at the end of the previous post in this series. I have moved some of those parts here because they make more sense here and edited the previous post to reflect that.]
It seems that our ‘dash of pure fantasy’ has turned from a little bit of salt to flavor the meal into a barrel of salted fish with with all the fish removed. But we have talked about quite a lot, so a quick recap might be helpful. We have found that:
- The Dothraki subsistence system does not meaningfully replicate any nomadic subsistence system in either Eurasia or the Great Plains.
- The lack of Dothraki art and music stands in stark contrast to the rich artistic and musical culture of actual horse-borne nomads.
- The Dothraki system of leadership and the inheritance of that leadership bears only superficial resemblance to Mongol systems and betrays a serious lack of understanding of those systems. It resembles Native American systems not at all.
- The Dothraki incomprehension of trade also bears effecitvely no resemblance to actual Native American or Steppe nomads.
- The Dothraki practice of slavery bears some resemblance to the practice of Eurasian Steppe nomads (but not generally Great Plains Native Americans), but the context is meaningfully wrong in presenting the Dothraki as the key supply-source and driver of the trade.
- The Dothraki attitude towards rape is flatly a-historical.
- The Dothraki’s system of resolving all disputes with murder, and the general prevalence of murder, bears no resemblance to historical nomadic cultures in either Eurasia or the Great Plains.
That is a 0.5 out of 7 (I am giving the half-point on slavery since Eurasian Steppe Nomads did engage in slavery and slave trading). So our ‘dash’ of pure fantasy has turned out to be – so far – 93% of the mixture. I want to say that again:
The notion that the Dothraki are an amalgam of any historical cultures is NINETY-THREE PERCENT rubbish (to be clear, this is a rhetorical statement, not a sincere expression of a statistical reality). I should dearly hope – indeed, I know (for I have graded the papers) – that my average undergraduate student could do better than this after just a few hours of reading about any of these cultures. Not even a full day. A single encyclopedia article could have equipped Martin better than this. The bar here is not high!
But those errors compound in the depiction in quite unfortunate – indeed, irresponsible -ways.
The first problem, the glare of which should by now be overpowering, is the very idea that it is possible to construct an ‘amalgam’ of Great Plains and Eurasian Steppe ‘horse cultures’ can really only exist at a superficial level where most of what one knows are stereotypes and nothing more. These are not hyper-similar societies – they are, in fact, very different, shaped by the different ecologies, subsistence systems and situations they find themselves in. They operate on different scales, at different population densities, with different seasonal movements and different outside cultural influences and consequently have very different cultures. They have different systems of social organization, different traditions of art and music, different rules of family ties and inheritance and so on. The only things they have in common is the two things Martin seems to have understood: they ride horses and are nomads (although he couldn’t get which horses right, or how a nomadic society functions).
But that leads into the larger problem, which comes out quite clearly in how Martin has carelessly separated the shepherds and the nomads into separate cultures living side-by-side (and hating and killing each other). As we’ve discussed, that’s wrong: the shepherds and the fearsome riders were the same people. But Martin has stripped away not just the shepherding from the Dothraki, but also the cheese-making and wool cleaning and so on – after having already, as we saw in the first essay in this series, also stripped away the artistry, creativity and artisinal skill. His Dothraki don’t do anything as whimpy as herding sheep – something they regard as unmanly because of course they do – they kill the sheep (with arrows, which just makes it a double waste for every shaft that breaks or tip that is lost) and leave them to rot, like (very stupid) badassess.
He has stripped the Dothraki of every part of a Steppe nomads life, except the barbaric violence. This week, we’ve seen how literally true that was. The historical art, the music, the councils, the complex social structures, layered social hierarchies, extended clan dynamics, complicated gender roles…all of it is stripped away and replaced by copious amounts of murder and rape. And in so doing, he has taken one of only a handful of non-white cultures that we really meet and get a real taste of (rather than merely passing through) and reduces it from a complex culture which grows, nurtures and conserves (but also kills and destroys – we’re not going to don any rosy glasses about the violence of nomads here – that discussion is coming) into a pure vehicle of violent destruction, offering nothing of redeeming value.
And then he has the audacity to claim that this is an ‘amalgam’ of real people that both really existed in the past, but also really exist today. Had the Dothraki merely been ‘orcs’ or ‘trolls’ – fantasy beings wholly and clearly divorced from any real-world culture – these problems might not be so troubling. But Martin has gone out of his way to tell us that he has based this fantasy culture off of real people with only a ‘dash of pure fantasy.’ he has repeatedly defended these elements as being historically based, as reflecting something true about specific people. And that is where we move from the realm of ‘unfortunate’ implications to the realm of irresponsibility.
The last two hundred years have not been a great time to be nomads. The condition of many Native Americans in the United States remains parlous and frankly shameful. Many Mongolians inside China face similar efforts at forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing as the Uyghurs. And yet Martin – in a position of tremendous influence – has opted to propagate a vision of the cultures as primarily composed of men who rape and murder and do little else. And again, I must stress, he has not implied this thing through subtext or unintentional similarities or implications, he has stated this outright as a defense of his work that this is how it ‘really was’ – a belief now parroted by many of his fans. The honest mistake has become an irresponsible error, perhaps a moral one.
I should also note the defense I hear that Martin may get this or that technical question of armor or weapons or food or what have you wrong, that he is still a keen observer of human behavior and psychology. I hope this essay has put some rather large holes in that defense as well. How keen an observer of human psychology is someone who has apparently managed to incorrectly extrapolate nearly everything about the behavior and organization of this society? He has cleverly taken the measure of people, but hasn’t stopped to consider that even nomads aren’t fond of murder, or that they express themselves in art and song? Martin is a gifted writer and storyteller, but a good historian, psychologist, philosopher, sociologist, he is not. To present his often nihilistic vision of human nature – especially in how he presents the non-white peoples of Essos – as grounded in historical fact is, quite frankly, to lie.
And to say that the culture of the Dothraki is meaningfully based on either Eurasian Steppe nomads or Great Plains Native Americans is shamefully deceptive.
For our last entry in this series, we will look finally at Dothraki warfare. Both how they fight, but also why they fight. I am taking next week off for the holidays, but we’ll be back to conclude this series right on January 1 at the start of the new year.