Game of Thrones: Who are the Un­sul­lied?

A look at the his­tory and in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the eu­nuch war­riors

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By RE­BECCA HAWKES

In George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire se­ries, the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind HBO’s Game of Thrones, Un­sul­lied sol­diers, taken as young boys and raised to be­come a fight­ing elite, are fully cas­trated, with all their parts re­moved when they are still chil­dren. (The show, in contrast, has im­plied this may not be the case for all of the men.)

As far as we know, there hasn’t ever been a vast slave army com­posed en­tirely of eu­nuchs. But that doesn’t mean that Martin didn’t take in­di­rect in­spi­ra­tion from his­tory when cre­at­ing his fic­tional troops.

Below, we ex­plore the way the Un­sul­lied are por­trayed in his books, de­tail­ing their cruel train­ing regime, be­fore look­ing at some pos­si­ble re­al­world par­al­lels for the slave army.

Why are the Un­sul­lied fully cas­trated in the books?

“In Yunkai and Meereen, eu­nuchs are often made by re­mov­ing a boy’s tes­ti­cles, but leav­ing the pe­nis. Such a crea­ture is in­fer­tile, yet often still ca­pa­ble of erection. Only trou­ble can come of this. We re­move the pe­nis as well, leav­ing nothing. The Un­sul­lied are the purest crea­tures on the earth,” ex­plains slave dealer Kraznys mo Nak­loz in Martin’s book A Storm of Swords. bet­ter than strength ... They have dis­ci­pline,” he adds.

The train­ing the slaves en­dure to at­tain this dis­ci­pline, how­ever, is hor­rif­i­cally bru­tal. Fol­low­ing their cas­tra­tion, the young boys taken to be­come Un­sul­lied war­riors must burn their re­moved body parts on a pyre ded­i­cated to the Lady of Spears, the Un­sul­lied God­dess. They must also har­den them­selves emo­tion­ally, adopt­ing and rais­ing a puppy for a year, then cold-blood­edly stran­gling their de­voted pet. (Find Grey Worm and his love for Mis­sandei just a tad too adorable on the show? Pic­ture him throt­tling a lov­able pooch to death.)

To fi­nally “grad­u­ate” as a ful­lyfledged Un­sul­lied sol­dier, the test is even more hor­ri­ble. The un­lucky young men in ques­tion must go to a slave mar­ket, pur­chase a new­born baby from a slave dealer, then kill the in­fant in front of its mother. If they re­sist, they face death them­selves.

Un­sul­lied sol­diers are also given a new, ver­min-in­spired name every day (in both the books and show, Grey Worm chooses to keep the name he was us­ing on the day he was freed). The aim, in ef­fect, is to strip away all hu­man­ity, cre­at­ing an army of ef­fi­cient au­toma­tons.

Which real armies might have in­spired the Un­sul­lied?

In­spi­ra­tion-wise, Martin has al­ways warned against draw­ing neat his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels, ex­plain­ing that he avoids “direct one-for-one trans­plants, whether of in­di­vid­u­als or of en­tire cul­tures”.

That said, there are a num­ber of his­tor­i­cal armies who might have helped in­spire the Un­sul­lied. The horse-rid­ing Mus­lim Mam­luk armies of the Mid­dle Ages, for ex­am­ple, were made up of slaves (the lit­eral trans­la­tion of the Ara­bic word Mam­luk is “slave” or “one who is owned”, although the term is used to re­fer to the men in these armies, and the dy­nas­ties they later founded, rather than to all slaves of the time).

His­to­ri­ans be­lieve that the Mam­luk tra­di­tion, which would en­dure for many hun­dreds of years, dates back to the ninth cen­tury, a time when mounted cav­alry units were in­creas­ing in im­por­tance. Like the Un­sul­lied, most of the men within the Mam­luk armies were bought from for­eign slave mar­kets or cap­tured while they were till young boys, then con­verted to Is­lam, and trained up to be loyal sol­diers.

How­ever, they were not de­hu­man­ised in quite the same way as Martin’s fic­tional army. In­stead, be­ing a Mam­luk sol­dier came to carry with it a cer­tain amount of sta­tus. The sol­diers were still obliged to serve the sul­tan they be­longed to — but, be­cause of their mil­i­tary prow­ess, and their im­por­tance in help­ing no­bles main­tain power, they often wielded con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal clout them­selves.

In­deed, in many no­table cases, Mam­luk armies would go on to over­throw their rulers, found­ing dy­nas­ties of their own in coun­tries such as Egypt and In­dia. In contrast, in Martin’s books and the HBO show, we’ve wit­nessed the Un­sul­lied over­throw their Masters, but only af­ter be­ing com­manded to do so by Daen­erys.

Other his­tor­i­cal mil­i­tary forces often cited as pos­si­ble in­spi­ra­tion for the Un­sul­lied in­clude the An­cient Greek Spar­tans, who cer­tainly en­dured a pun­ish­ing train­ing regime (and gave rise to the mod­ern ad­jec­tive “Spar­tan”, used to de­scribe con­di­tions which are no­tably aus­tere and lack­ing in com­fort).

Ac­cord­ing to the web­site His­tory Be­hind Game of Thrones, there are a num­ber of par­al­lels be­tween Spar­tan drilling and Un­sul­lied train­ing tech­niques. The Un­sul­lied, for in­stance, are made to drink a spe­cial wine, the wine of courage, which dead­ens their senses and, across the years, slowly builds a tol­er­ance to pain. The Spar­tans, how­ever, sim­ply re­lied on sheer har­di­ness, dis­cour­ag­ing the young boys in­ducted into their ranks from show­ing any ex­ter­nal signs of dis­com­fort.

Ac­cord­ing to the web­site, this learned im­per­vi­ous­ness was re­in­forced via an an­nual whip­ping con­test, “known as dia­mastigo­sis, in which Spar­tan boys com­peted to see who could with­stand flog­ging the long­est with­out scream­ing or pass­ing out”. Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, a num­ber of com­peti­tors died dur­ing this “game”.

Oth­ers, too, have drawn com­par­i­son be­tween a leg­endary Un­sul­lied bat­tle from Game of Thrones his­tory, al­luded to in both the books and show, and the fa­mous Bat­tle of Ther­mopy­lae of 480 BC, de­picted in the film 300. Dur­ing the bat­tle, 300 Spar­tan sol­diers, led by King Leonidas, took on a vast Per­sian army, man­ag­ing to hold them back for sev­eral days be­fore nobly fight­ing to the death.

The pop­u­lar, Hol­ly­wood ver­sion of events is of course a lit­tle ex­ag­ger­ated: the 300 were in fact joined by around 7,000 or so other Greek sol­diers, although they were still vastly out­num­bered by the Per­sians.

Like­wise, in Game of Thrones Daen­erys is told of the leg­endary Bat­tle of Qo­hor, which took place hun­dreds of years be­fore the events of the books and TV show. Dur­ing it, 3,000 Un­sul­lied sol­diers de­fended a city against a horde of 20,000 Dothraki.

There is, how­ever, one im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween the sol­diers of an­cient Sparta and the Un­sul­lied. The Spar­tans were not a slave army, and in­stead in­duc­tion into the ranks of the mil­i­tary was seen as the nat­u­ral pa­tri­otic duty of high-born men.

What about that rit­ual dog stran­gling?

It was re­ported in 2013 that rit­ual slaugh­ter of a dog may have been used as a rite of pas­sage for young boys dur­ing the Bronze Age.

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists work­ing on a site in Kras­nosamark­skoe, Rus­sia, were at first puz­zled by the dis­cov­ery of the re­mains of dozens of dogs and wolves, the bod­ies of which had later been burned and dis­mem­bered.

While the ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion would have been that the ca­nines had been used for food, the pat­terns left on the bones were not con­sis­tent with this kind of butch­ery. Fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tions also showed that all the an­i­mals had been killed in the win­ter­time.

In­stead, the re­searchers spec­u­lated that the dogs and wolves, all of whom were aged be­tween seven and 12, may have been pets, killed as part of a com­ing of age cer­e­mony for young men to mark their in­duc­tion into a rov­ing warrior band.

There is ap­par­ently am­ple his­tor­i­cal prece­dent for the ex­is­tence of these kind of all-male groups, which would be formed by young men leav­ing their homes and fam­i­lies and band­ing to­gether.

“These were young guys on the edge of so­ci­ety who oc­ca­sion­ally would steal cows, and you’d rather they were off steal­ing some­one else’s cows,” ar­chae­ol­o­gist David An­thony, one of the site’s ex­ca­va­tors, ex­plained to Ar­chae­ol­ “So they were ex­pelled from their so­cial groups and told to raid other com­mu­ni­ties.”

An­cient Indo-Euro­pean texts also re­veal that, in some so­ci­eties, the sac­ri­fice of a dog was used as a way of mark­ing a young boy’s tran­si­tion to man­hood.

Ac­cord­ing to a Na­tional Geo­graphic re­port on the ex­ca­va­tion, the dogs at the Kras­nosamark­skoe site could even have been “long­time com­pan­ions — pos­si­bly even hounds raised with the boys from birth”.

Of course, the rel­a­tively re­cent date of the dis­cov­ery means that it can’t have been used by Martin as direct in­spi­ra­tion. But the au­thor may well have been in­flu­enced by some of the wider as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween dogs and young male war­riors, and by the idea of a blood sac­ri­fice as an ini­ti­a­tion rite.


Scenes from Game of Thrones, in­clud­ing Un­sul­lied sol­dier Grey Worm (above left), played by Ja­cob An­der­son.

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