Game of Thrones: Who are the Unsullied?
A look at the history and inspiration behind the eunuch warriors
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 Archaeology.org. “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.