Jaime’s Ladder: A Case Study of Shamanism in ASOIAF

Dreams, visions, prophecies — the books comprising George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire (ASOIAF) abound in shamanic symbolism. Nearly every single point-of-view (POV) character exhibits some form of mystical experience connecting them with a higher spiritual realm and representing a change in their experience or a foreshadowing of their future actions.

Many fans of the series of the series are aware of how Martin’s own dream of direwolves in the snow inspired the story, which indicates indicating that he is more than willing to offer the same visionary experience to his creations.

Obvious examples of this motif are the visions of the greenseers, such as Bloodraven or Bran Stark, but the seasoned reader should also be well attuned to the phenomenon among a wide variety of characters. POVs with this experience include Jon Snow, Danaerys, Ned, Cersei, Arya and Melissandre, while many other characters exhibit the same properties, such as the Ghost of High Heart or Patchface.

A somewhat less obvious exhibitor of the shamanic archetype is Jaime Lannister. Initially brushed off as a brash, arrogant stereotype, his character arc is one of the most captivating in the series.


“There are no men like me … ladies

Given a closer look, we can discover the deliberate shamanic inspiration for this character and, thus, better understand our own potential to broaden the experience of our existence.

Shaman You

Mercea Eliade includes a number of passages on the concept of shamanism in all three volumes of “A History of Religious Ideas.” Found in virtually all cultures across the globe going back to archaic times, the shamanistic phenomenon represents a fundamental metaphysical and psychological experience on both the person and the tribe:

[I]n effect, the shaman is at one and the same time theologian and demonologist, specialist in ecstasy and medicine-man, auxiliary of the hunt, protector of the community and the animal herds, psychopomp and, in certain societies, poet and man of erudition.

The shaman exists in both the material and spiritual realms, what Eliade calls the “tripartite universe:” heaven, earth and the underworld. He (the shaman is usually but not necessarily male) requires initiation of some sort, usually involving an ability to visualize or transcend into hell or heaven, though which he gains an understanding of the precariousness of the human soul. He becomes familiar with the spiritual beings within the earthly and spiritual realms, and develops the means to combat demons and other spiritual ills befallen the tribe.

As part of the initiation process, the initiate shaman undergoes a ritualistic death and descent into hell (or sometimes ascend to heaven). To legitimize his office, in almost all instances, he requires recognition of a “double instruction.” In other words, dreams or visions are not enough; the initiate also needs a “traditional order” which could include a detailed understanding of shamanistic techniques, knowledge of names and functions of spirits, mythology, and secret languages, among other mysteries.

Even before this, the neophyte shaman would signal their potential through signs and portents to their being, noticeable through changes in behavior. Usually, they’d start getting a little flakey or absentminded, or undergo periods of solitary excursions, or in some cases, self-mutilation. They might also experience epileptic fits, though Jordan Peterson notes the evidence suggests that the epileptic experience is far different from mystical or psychological visions. The use of psychedelic drugs is also common but not necessary.

Eliade reports on the shamanistic initiation of the Buryat people, who claim that, at some point,

the soul is carried away by the spirit. Received in the palace of the gods, it is instructed by the ancestor shamans in the secrets of the profession, the forms and names of the gods, the names and cult of the spirits, and so on. It is only after this first initiation that the soul reintegrates with the body.

Initiation could also be instigated by a crisis of the body, such as a sickness, injury or torture. Often this is simulated as part of the shamanistic ritual, but it also could come involuntarily through a true brush with death. The experience would include some sort of dismemberment or stripping away of the flesh before being rebuilt as a new person.

The initiation ritual would include a subsequent spiritual ascent, say, up a tree or mountain, or an engagement with a heavily spirit in the form of a bird or angel, representing the return from the underworld and the receiving of cosmic transcendence.

The key to the entire process is the return to material form with the knowledge gained from the journey. It’s no good to die spiritually (or literally) and not be able to benefit the person or the community. I’m just guessing here, but I’m pretty sure this process was developed over thousands of years through a painful (and sometimes irresponsibly stupid) process of trial-and-error.

Note too that the shamanic experience is also symbolized in the Christian sacramental rites, such as baptism. In this case, the initiate is submerged under the water, where they undergo a cleansing of sorts. The sins being washed away are akin to the weak earthly flesh being stripped from the bones. The Christian initiate is dressed in white to represent being reborn anew as they rise above the unknown chaos toward the heavens above.

Jacob in Genesis

In a two-part lecture, Jordan Peterson makes a convincing case of shamanistic characteristics of the biblical figure Jacob. The presentations trace his story in Genesis line by line and show that Jacob is pretty much an awful cad — deceitful, entitled, cowardly — yet through his calling and transformation, he emerges as the mythological patriarch of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel.

Part I:

Part II:

While The Jacobean journey isn’t plagiarized in full by George RR Martin, there are enough parallels in ASOIAF to warrant a comparative analysis of the biblical narrative to unveil their shared motifs and archetypal patterns. We’ll go through a few of them below.

The Struggle Within

First, like many of us, Jacob’s origins start in the womb. His father is Isaac, the son of Abraham, and he himself is an old man, with an old wife who is barren. A common motif in the Bible is the miraculous pregnancy, and that’s what happens here:

And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah to wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Padanaram, the sister to Laban the Syrian.

And Isaac intreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren: and the Lord was intreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived.

And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the Lord.

And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb.

And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.

And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob: and Isaac was threescore years old when she bare them.

The name Jacob means “usurper,” which is a bit of an auspicious omen, to say the least.


As with many biblical tales, this story could be perceived on multiple levels. We’re told that the struggle in the womb was not only between the two boys but of the nations they would later come to represent. Peterson describes this as “twins locked in enmity, represented as light vs darkness;” however it can also be “seen in ourselves with our own internal conflicts, with a super-ordinate destiny.”

So the enmity is certainly there, but a struggle could also represent an embrace of sorts. As with many familial relationships, their conflict is complex, as times supportive and loving but tainted with lingering resentment and jealousy. This is a theme we see time and time again in the Bible.

Jacob the Usurper

The conflict between Esau and Jacob continues after birth and reaches a critical head when Esau needs something from his brother:

And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents.

And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob.

And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:

And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.

And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.

And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.

Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

Not sure what one might think about poor, naive Esau, who was willing to give up his inheritance for a bowl of red lentils, but that’s still a raw deal.


I mean, sure, they’re tasty and full of healthy protein

It’s the first but not the last mention of Jacob being a trickster.

Case in point is the farcical scene in which Jacob fools his blind old father into blessing him and giving him dominion over his brother. The passage is a bit long, so I won’t include it in here, but let’s say it includes Jacob covering himself in goatskin to feel more like the very hairy Esau.

Yes, the Bible is an episode of “Bosom Buddies.”

Anyway, Esau is pretty upset by this, considering he’s to be subservient to his own little shitty brother. Jacob, fearing his brother’s rightful wrath, is now forced to flee and seek out his uncle in an unknown land. This is no trivial matter. This world is a dark, dangerous place. Laws and customs exist, but these can be arbitrary and capricious, especially for a lone stranger who has barely left his mother’s side until now. If God were just, Jacob would be in for a hell of a shock.

Jacob’s Ladder

But the God of the Old Testament is an odd fellow. It is not merely justice but divine revelation that Jacob receives.

And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;

And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.

And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.


Jacob’s Ladder by William Blake, c. 1799-1806

Yeah, I’d be a bit freaked out by this too. This is the classic shamanic vision, whereby the initiate finds himself at the connection between earth and heaven during a time of crisis. Jacob does not descend into hell, but in this case, he clearly transcended from the mundane realm into the divine. God may be the source of all good, but His splendor remains utterly horrifying to mere mortal eyes.

The Axis Mundi and House of God

And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,

So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God:

And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.


St. Peter’s square

The pillar represents the Axis Mundi, the centre of where earth meets the cosmic transcendent. It’s the Tree of Life, the pyramid, the tower and the cross. It denotes a sacred place where one’s being becomes centered and harmonized with the spirit. It is one of our deepest archetypal images, indicating how we orient ourselves to our environment and our inner psyche, and as such remains the prototypical element found in shamanic visions.

The experience must have affected Jacob significantly. He returns to Bethel (“Beth-el,” or “House of God“) later in life during another time of crisis, as do many biblical characters, but that’s a topic for another essay.

Desire for the Younger, More Beautiful

For now, he continues on his journey in the strange land. He finally reaches his destination, the home of his uncle Laban, who’s a bit of sketchy character in his own right. As he enters the farm, he encounters Laban’s hot young daughter, Rachel:

And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother.

And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.

Nothing is sexier than crying hysterically after kissing a girl, amiright?


And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, and that he was Rebekah’s son: and she ran and told her father.

And it came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house. And he told Laban all these things.

And Laban said to him, Surely thou art my bone and my flesh. And he abode with him the space of a month.

And Laban said unto Jacob, Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? tell me, what shall thy wages be?

And Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.

Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favored.

And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.

And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man: abide with me.

Uncle Laban agrees to let Jacob marry his youngest daughter after seven years of work. Seems legit, right?

And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.

And Jacob said unto Laban, Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her.

And Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast.

And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her.

And Laban gave unto his daughter Leah Zilpah his maid for an handmaid.

And it came to pass, that in the morning, behold, it was Leah: and he said to Laban, What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?

And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.

Uh oh. Laban pulled the old switcheroo, giving Jacob the elder instead of the younger. It’s apparent that Jacob got the lying-trickster gene from his mother’s side of the family.

Fulfil her week, and we will give thee this also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years.

And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week: and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also.

And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid to be her maid.

And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years.

And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.

Jake finally ends up with both daughers. He initially wanted a child with Rachel but was only blessed with children from Leah, at least to start with. He later conceives his two favorite children (Joseph and Benjamin) with the younger, more beautiful Rachel.

Wrestling with God

So then stuff happens. Jacob pisses off his father-in-law, they play a few games of chicanery, and Jacob finally decides to take his new family back home. He’s a bit wary of how Esau will greet him after all these years, and so sends a substantial gift ahead of his party to help quell the tempest. He also splits up his entourage and maneuvers them carefully to avoid losing everything at once. He finds himself alone for a night beside a river, when he encounters a strange man. Somehow, they got to wrasslin’:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.


Jacob becomes “Israel,” which is said to mean “struggle with God.” The identity of strange man is hard to determine. Various traditions say he was either a prophet or an angel, or even God Himself. The most common modern interpretation is that of an angelic messenger representing the struggle we all have with our internal and external forms of justice, faith or existence, as represented by God the Father. So we’ll go with angel.

The match was a stalemate. Jacob was hurt in the upper thigh, but the angel was also in a bind as daybreak must have been some sort of limit on his ability to exist on earth. I’m not sure how that is supposed to work. It could very well be that this was another dream, given that it occurred at night and might have been a follow-up to his ladder vision.

In any case, Jacob continues home and is able to mollify the strife between Esau and himself with some generous gifts, kind words and big bro hugs (presumably).

Jacob does well; he ends up with 12 sons and a daughter, and life is good, at least until Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and Jacob Israel thinks him dead. Otherwise, things are peachy.

The Return to the Underworld

A few chapters later, and Jacob has another vision, after discovering that his son Joseph was alive and well in Egypt and had invited him to come on down to stay with him.

And God spake unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said, Jacob, Jacob. And he said, Here am I.

And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation:

I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again: and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes.

This represents another descent to the underworld as Jacob Israel becomes a stranger in a strange land, his people becoming captive in Egypt. As with all types of heroic journeys, there is danger in his descent, but also opportunity. With great risk comes great reward.


Israel arrives in Egypt, and they all live happily ever after

In a brief twitter correspondence with Jonathan Pageau, I’m told that this is Israel’s symbolic death:

From the microcosm to the macrocosm. In that case it has to do with ‘forgetting’ by the Pharaoh, and going into chaos is not just negative, it is also a taking on of ‘matter’, so they become multiple in Egypt.

When asked whether “it was necessary for Israel to enter into Egypt in order to be reborn as a people through Exodus,” Pageau responded:

The key is also how the Israelites left not only with more people, but also took the Egyptian goods, gold and silver.

Again, this repeated pattern of descents and ascents typifies the shamanic visionary experience, complete with the gain of knowledge to be used to benefit of the community. Jacob is shaman.


Jacob blessing his sons

Before we move on, let us reiterate briefly the motifs highlighted from Jacob’s story in Genesis:

  • The antagonistic twins
  • The trickster
  • The usurpation
  • The journey into the unknown
  • The visionary encounter with God
  • The axis-mundi pillar
  • The choice of the younger over the elder
  • The reunification with the twin
  • The struggle with the divine
  • The injury to the thigh
  • The return to the underworld.

Remember these Jacobean motifs as we run a comparison with our favourite child-murdering, incestuous, one-handed kingslayer: Ser Jaime Lannister

Jaime of House Lannister

Jaime Lannister is one of the most compelling characters in the ASOIAF books as well as on the Game of Thrones television show. He is introduced like the prototypical antagonist from a 1980s teen drama — a beautiful, blond, arrogant jock picking on the hero of the story.


I’m looking at you, James Spader

Yet, Martin is able to create an incredibly complex and meaningful person that is at once deplorable, attractive, intelligent, action oriented and morally conflicted.

Jaime the Usurper

Jaime’s story is intrinsically tied to his twin sister Cersei. To say their relationship is a close one would be an understatement. It goes back to their time together in their mother’s womb:

“My brother is worth a hundred of your friend.”

“Your brother?” Ned said. “Or your lover?”

“Both.” She did not flinch from the truth. “Since we were children together. And why not? The Targaryens wed brother to sister for three hundred years, to keep the bloodlines pure. And Jaime and I are more than brother and sister. We are one person in two bodies. We shared a womb together. He came into this world holding my foot, our old maester said. When he is in me, I feel … whole.” A ghost of a smile flitted over her lips.

Jaime has been sleeping with his sister since they were kids, and is the father of her children. Not only is this ew, but given that her husband is the king, it makes him a cuckolding trickster. Moreover, Cersei plays the role of the Jacob’s conniving mother, Rebekah, by using trickery to get Jaime to be with her in Kings Landing.

The twin motif is as old as storytelling. It can represent complex relationships between kin but also that of our internal personalities, as represented by archetypes. Many variations of this motif are available, such as Cain and Abel, Thor and Loki, Jesus and Satan, or even Batman and Joker. The similarities between the two persons highlights their differences, which enhances the conflict.

What make the grabbing-the-heel image unique is that it is found exclusively within the story of Jacob. You don’t see this in any other major mythological twin traditions, which makes me think that Martin was very deliberate early in A Game of Thrones in foreshadowing the schism between Jaime and Cersei despite all evidence to the contrary. By the time they are reunited in A Storm of Swords, the two lovers start displaying a degree of mutual hostility:

For an instant he could see confusion in her bright green eyes, and fear as well. Then rage replaced it. Cersei gathered herself together, got to her feet, straightened her skirts. “Was it your hand they hacked off in Harrenhal, or your manhood?”

They continue to argue. It doesn’t end well:

“You had best go, Cersei. You’re making me angry.”

“Oh, an angry cripple. How terrifying.” She laughed. “A pity Lord Tywin Lannister never had a son. I could have been the heir he wanted, but I lacked the cock.”

There you have it. Cersei is driven (at least in part) by the unjust usurpation of her birthright to Casterly Rock.

Rite of Baptism

George Martin is not religious, at least not in the conventional sense. He has expressed publicly his disillusionment with religion, but mostly from the critical view of religion being used to justify war and atrocities. This is definitely understandable, especially being that Martin is a pacifist. He he seems to retain some measure of respect for religion, even if he has lost his faith, but it does not appear that he is a practicing Christian.

Reading his work, however, and you cannot help but notice his Catholic upbringing emerging out of this fantasy tale.

The sacramental rites abound. For example, what do you suppose the inspiration was for this passage?

Brienne shrunk away from him. “There are other tubs.”

“This one suits me well enough.” Gingerly, he immersed himself up to the chin in the steaming water. “Have no fear, wench. Your thighs are purple and green, and I’m not interested in what you’ve got between them.” He had to rest his right arm on the rim, since Qyburn had warned him to keep the linen dry. He could feel the tension drain from his legs, but his head spun. “If I faint, pull me out. No Lannister has ever drowned in the bath and I don’t mean to be the first.”

“Why should I care how you die?”

“You swore a solemn vow.” He smiled as a red flush crept up the thick white column of her neck. “Still a shy maiden? What is it that you think I haven’t seen?” He groped for the brush she had dropped, caught it with his fingers, and began to scrub himself desultorily. Even that was difficult, awkward. My left hand is good for nothing.

Still, the water darkened as the caked dirt dissolved off his skin. The wench kept her back to him, the muscles in her great shoulders hunched and hard.

jaime brienne bath

An obvious baptism metaphor if there ever was one, the bath scene in A Storm of Swords marks the beginning of Jaime Lannister’s moral redemption.

Brienne later recalls it in mythological terms:

The bathhouse had been thick with the steam rising off the water, and Jaime had come walking through that mist naked as his name day, looking half a corpse and half a god.

It was his name day. Jaime was reborn in that water, achieving both ritual death and divine redemption, a corpse and a god.

Remember, before this, things weren’t looking so good for the Lion of Lannister. His humiliating defeat in the whispering wood at the hands of Robb Stark were merely the first in a series of progressively detrimental incidents. He was captured, imprisoned and rendered weak deep in the bowels of Riverrun, was escorted downriver, had his brief hopes of returning home set asunder due to his arrogant defiance that led to his being captured by the Bloody Mummers and his hand amputated. If that wasn’t enough, his dismemberment led to a serious infection as well as a significant psychological depression, both which threatened his life.

Thus, this baptism in the depths of Harrenhal — Harren’s Hell — is Jaime’s literal re-enactment of descending to the underworld, the rendering of flesh, and emerging up toward heaven.

Rite of Reconciliation

Next, look at what happens as he cleanses himself. He starts to confess to Brienne of Tarth where, probably for the first time, he admits not only the circumstances surrounding his role in assassinating Mad King Aerys, but also reveals emotionally the dark secret he had kept for 14 years, namely his internal conflicts with honor, duty and justice he’d hidden deep inside his soul.

jaime brienne bath 2

She asks him “If this is true, how is it no one knows?” No one knows because he has never undergone a ritualistic confession before.

The act of reconciliation is a necessary step toward achieving redemption. Articulating one’s missteps and evil deeds is a continuation of the symbolic cleansing of the soul through catharsis. It does not excuse or belittle the malicious acts perpetrated by the initiate, but the process does reveal deeper wisdom and insight as to what constitutes good and moral behavior relative to the immoral.

Rite of Eucharist

After his cleansing and confession, Jamie is dressed in fresh clothing for the first time since the whispering wood. Fresh skin for a man stripped bare.

He then is invited for a hearty, hot meal, again for the first time since his descent. He is first offered wine and bread and then, in case that wasn’t obvious enough, he’s presented with a bloody slab of meat. This is literally the Eucharistic communion ritual.


Notably, he is not shown to consume any of it; he rejects the sacrament.

The Eucharist represents the sacrifice required to achieve transcendence to the divine. Catholics consider the consumption of the flesh and blood of the Logos a sacred act. The participant directly imbibes the creative wisdom of God Himself. Being in God’s presence, as Jacob shows, is a terrifying affair, which is why one must take adequate preparations to receive the Logos, including the ritual baptism and cleansing of sin. It is not a process taken lightly.

Why does Jaime reject the sacrament? Physical limitations aside, it could be that he is not fully prepared to accept his divine role in the story. He still sees himself as a Lannister perhaps, loyal to his family’s tyrannical actions rather than to the good of the realm, or to the honor of his office. Maybe he is not prepared to accept his true calling just yet. I suspect we’ll see this continue to play out in the remaining books.

But at least he has attempted his shamanic initiation rites.

Jaime’s Ladder

Jaime’s redemption arc has many of the elements one might see in an shamanistic initiation ceremony — death, descent into the underworld, dual catharsis in the forms of confession and the renewal of mortal flesh, and finally the ascent; however, he’s still missing that essential component that separates a lay initiate from a shaman — the vision. We get that in spades during Jaime’s next chapter in A Storm of Swords.

While Walton set the watches, Jaime stretched out near the fire and propped a rolled-up bearskin against a stump as a pillow for his head. The wench would have told him he had to eat before he slept, to keep his strength up, but he was more tired than hungry. He closed his eyes, and hoped to dream of Cersei. The fever dreams were all so vivid

Naked and alone he stood, surrounded by enemies, with stone walls all around him pressing close. The Rock, he knew. He could feel the immense weight of it above his head. He was home. He was home and whole.

He held his right hand up and flexed his fingers to feel the strength in them. It felt as good as sex. As good as swordplay. Four fingers and a thumb. He had dreamed that he was maimed, but it wasn’t so. Relief made him dizzy. My hand, my good hand. Nothing could hurt him so long as he was whole.

Around him stood a dozen tall dark figures in cowled robes that hid their faces. In their hands were spears. “Who are you?” he demanded of them. “What business do you have in Casterly Rock?”

They gave no answer, only prodded him with the points of their spears. He had no choice but to descend. Down a twisting passageway he went, narrow steps carved from the living rock, down and down. I must go up, he told himself. Up, not down. Why am I going down? Below the earth his doom awaited, he knew with the certainty of dream; something dark and terrible lurked there, something that wanted him. Jaime tried to halt, but their spears prodded him on. If only I had my sword, nothing could harm me.

The steps ended abruptly on echoing darkness. Jaime had the sense of vast space before him. He jerked to a halt, teetering on the edge of nothingness. A spearpoint jabbed at the small of his back, shoving him into the abyss. He shouted, but the fall was short. He landed on his hands and knees, upon soft sand and shallow water. There were watery caverns deep below Casterly Rock, but this one was strange to him. “What place is this?”

Your place.”

Cave of Melody

Damn rights he’s in the his place. He had his chance to accept the sacrifice of flesh and blood put before him and refused it, just as he rejected his responsibility to Brienne. As such he’s sent to the underworld again, the Rock symbolizing his own tombstone. He stands in the watery abyss, surrounded by darkness and Lannisters dead and quick.

Nothing can hurt me so long as I have a sword. As he raised the sword a finger of pale flame flickered at the point and crept up along the edge, stopping a hand’s breath from the hilt. The fire took on the color of the steel itself so it burned with a silvery-blue light, and the gloom pulled back. Crouching, listening, Jaime moved in a circle, ready for anything that might come out of the darkness. The water flowed into his boots, ankle deep and bitterly cold. Beware the water, he told himself. There may be creatures living in it, hidden deeps


The water in the depths represents chaos and the unknown. It’s where he finds hope — his sword — but monsters lurk as well. Fortunately, he is not alone.

From behind came a great splash. Jaime whirled toward the sound … but the faint light revealed only Brienne of Tarth, her hands bound in heavy chains. “I swore to keep you safe,” the wench said stubbornly. “I swore an oath.” Naked, she raised her hands to Jaime. “Ser. Please. If you would be so good.”

The steel links parted like silk. “A sword,” Brienne begged, and there is was, scabbard, belt, and all. She buckled it around her thick waist. The light was so dim that Jaime could scarcely see her, though they stood a scant few feet apart. In this light she could almost be a beauty, he thought. In this light she could almost be a knight. Brienne’s sword took flame as well, burning silvery blue. The darkness retreated a little more.

Jaime sees a bit more, but not enough to make anything out. Whatever it is, it isn’t good.

“Do they keep a bear down here?” Brienne was moving, slow and wary, sword to hand; step, turn, and listen. Each step made a little splash. “A cave lion? Direwolves Some bear? Tell, me Jaime. What lives here? What lives in the darkness?

“Doom.” No bear, he knew. No lion. “Only doom.”

The underworld is where doom lives.

“Listen.” She put a hand on his shoulder, and he trembled at the sudden touch. She’s warm. “Something comes.” Brienne lifted her sword to point off to his left. “There.”

He peered into the gloom until he saw it too. Something was moving through the darkness, he could not quite make it out …

“A man on a horse. No, two. Two riders, side by side.”

“Down here, beneath the Rock?” It made no sense. Yet there came two riders on pale horses, men and mounts both armoured. The destriers emerged from the blackness at a slow walk. They make no sound, Jamie realized. No splashing, no clink of mail nor clop of hoof.

“Quiet as a shadow.”

He remembered Eddard Stark, riding the length of Aerys’s throne room wrapped in silence. Only his eyes had spoken; a lord’s eyes, cold and grey and full of judgment.

Eyes of the god of death.

“Is it you, Stark?” Jaime called. “Come ahead. I never feared you living, I do not fear you dead.”

Perhaps that’s the problem.

Brienne touched his arm. “There are more.”

He saw them too. They were armoured all in snow, it seemed to him, and ribbons of mist swirled back from their shoulders.

Jaime’s white shadows have arrived.

The visors on their helms were closed, but Jaime Lannister did not need to look upon their faces to know them.

Five had been his brothers. Oswell Whent and Jon Darry. Lewyn Martell, a prince of Dorne. The White Bull, Gerold Hightower. Ser Arthur Dayne, Sword of the Morning. And beside them, rode Rhaegar Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone and rightful heir to the Iron Throne.

Ser Jaime is reminded of his oaths, of his betrayals, and then the ghosts came rushing in.

When he wakes suddenly, Jaime notices he had been sleeping on weirwood stump. A stump only has roots going down; there is no ascent with a tree like this. He had only one way to go with this vision.

A Call to Action

Jaime’s mystical experience gives him divine knowledge. He knows what he is supposed to do, what is the moral choice. He must go back for his companion, his true sworn brother. It’s a mad obsession.

“Back?” Steelshanks regarded him dubiously.

He thinks I’ve gone mad. And perhaps I have. “I left something at Harrenhal.”


Brienne was tossed into Harrenhal’s bear pit, becoming the knight’s literal lady in distress. Jaime arrives just in time and orders Brienne to be released.

“You want her? Go get her.”

So he did.

Jaime returns to the monster-infested abyss. Brienne is more of a capable fighter than he given his condition, but Jaime needs to fulfill his knight’s oath regardless.

Brienne tried to dart around, but he kicked her legs out from under her. She fell in the sand, clutching the useless sword. Jaime straddled her, and the bear came charging.

One slight deus ex machina later, and they can now ascend from the pit, knight and lady together.

“Her name is Brienne,” Jaime said. “Brienne, the maid of Tarth. You are still maiden, I hope?”

Her broad homely face turned red. “Yes.”

“Oh, good,” Jaime said. “I only rescue maidens.”

Like a madman.

Not until they were half a league from Harrenhal and out of range of archers on the walls did Steelshanks Walton let his anger show. “Are you mad, Kingslayer? Did you mean to die?”

Yes, and yes.

“Ser Jaime?” Even in soiled pink satin and torn lace, Brienne looked more like a man in a gown than a proper woman. “I am grateful, but … you were well away. Why come back?”

A dozen quips came to mind, each crueler than the one before, but Jaime only shrugged. “I dreamed of you,” he said.

As shamans do.

Brienne the Beautiful Angel

If we feare God and serve him, we need feare no Angels; they be Traitors, not loyall Subjects, that feare the Kings Guard.

  • William Jones, from “A Commentary Vpon the Epistles of Saint Paul to Philemon, and to the Hebrewes,” 1635

I doubt Martin ever read this quote before, but doesn’t it illustrate exactly the role of the Kingsguard? That they are the guardian angels of a divine being? That woe only befalls those who wish to harm the king?

Gwendoline Christie Angel

Angels are rare in ASOIAF, being mentioned only twice; the first instance is in the House of Black and White in A Feast For Crows:

“Death is not the worst thing,” the kindly man replied. “It is His gift to us, an end to want and pain. On the day we are born the Many-Faced God sends each of us a dark angel to walk through life beside us. When our sins and our sufferings grow too great to be borne, the angel takes us by the hand to lead us to the night lands, where the stars burn ever bright. Those who come to drink from the black cup are looking for their angels.”

The second instance is brief, a mere aside in A Dance With Dragons when Dany describes Qezza, one of her lovely young hostages, as having “big soft eyes and angel’s voice.”

So angels per se don’t have much to do with this story filled to the brim with references to virtually every other mythological creature in our world.

But what else is a Brother of the Kingsguard than a protective white angelic shadow?

“What is this woman to you?”

“My protector.”

Brienne certainly fills this role for Jaime during his many ascents and descents during his journey of body and soul from Riverrun to King’s Landing. She’s essentially a psychopomp, a companion leading the shaman to and from the spiritual realm.

What brought this comparison to mind in particular was the great battle between Brienne and Jaime after they had thwarted the bandit attack. The Maid had received an arrow in both the back and leg, though she did not acknowledge either. A handcuffed Jaime took his fallen cousin’s longsword and attacked Brienne. A vicious battle ensued, going back and forth, neither combatant gaining the advantage for any significant duration.

A slick stone turned under Jaime’s foot. As he felt himself falling, he twisted his mischance into a diving lunge. His point scraped past her parry and bit into her upper thigh. A red flower blossomed, and Jamie had an instant to savor the sight of her blood before his knee slammed into a rock. The pain was blinding. Brienne splashed into him and kicked away his sword. “YIELD!”

A pair of curious coincidences occur which tie this scene to Jacob’s battle against his own angel. They end up clashing beside and then within a brook, similar to the river in the biblical narrative.

More interestingly, just as it seems that the battle would rage on forever, Jaime strikes Brienne in the upper thigh with his sword. Yet he is unable to claim victory, the fight is soon over when the Bloody Mummers make their appearance. Stalemate.

Sure, there is a sexual theme going on here with Brienne’s injury, akin to the warrior trying to steal (“steel”?) the maiden and taking pride in making his “sword” bloody. But it’s more than that. In Jacob’s story, it is he who is wounded in the hip by the angelic stranger, not the other way around, but it is a deliberate reference by Martin. The fight, the stalemate, the path beside the river, the wound to the upper thigh: it all checks out. Sort of.

The Valonqar

“Queen you shall be … until there comes another, younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear.”

young cersei

The Valonqar Prophecy haunts Cersei Lannister throughout her POV chapters. It originated when a young Cersei visited a witch called Maggy the Frog along with a couple of friends. They demanded to be told their futures, which is never a good idea. Cersei is told that she will be queen until she is brought down and deprived in some way. She’s also told that her valonqar — “little brother” in the Valyrian tongue — “shall wrap his hands about your throat about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.” Yeesh.

Cersei, being Cersei, thinks this will be little Tyrion Lannister, totally ignoring the fact that Jaime is the other little brother, the one with the usurpation aspirations, as mentioned above.

But think of the other prophecy that has Cersei all fraught with worry. She sees this “younger and more beautiful” queen ready to take all that she holds dear. She wonders if this will be Sansa, or Margaery Tyrell. Fans speculate on this as well, or consider whether this could be Daenerys.


A more plausible scenario is Brienne of Tarth — “Brienne the Beauty” — stealing Jaime’s love away from Cersei. Jaime is already becoming admiring and even attracted to Brienne, despite himself. This comes about from his transformative journey up to divine wisdom.

The last we see of Jaime, he meets up with a beaten and bloody Brienne, who implores him to come alone with her on another hero’s journey. He follows his angel into the unknown.

End scene.

Jaime’s Jacobean Journey

Now let’s compare the elements in Jacob’s story in Genesis with Jaime’s arc:

  • The antagonistic twins? Check.
  • The trickster? Check.
  • The usurper? Check.
  • The journey into the unknown? Check.
  • The visionary encounter with God? The old gods, sure. Check.
  • The axis-mundi pillar? Oh yeah.
  • The choice of the younger over the elder? I’m thinking so.
  • The reunification with the twin? Check.
  • The struggle with the divine angel? Yep.
  • The injury to the thigh? Definitely.
  • The return to the unknown? Ditto.

Maybe now is the time to note that the name “Jaime” is derived from “Jacob”.

You can see why Martin would use Jacob as an inspiration for the kingslayer figure. He’s one of the most compelling figures in the Hebrew scripture, not because he’s a good role model, but because he’s a bit of a lying shithead who nonetheless realizes his calling.

It’s a story repeated throughout the Bible by almost everyone of note, from Adam and Eve to St. Paul, with Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah and many others in between. But Jacob’s story is a little more fleshed out than most of these other characters. He’s the representation of the nation of Israel, those who continue to fight and struggle against their calling to be the chosen people.

This is us, isn’t it? Everyone feels they have some sort of calling in life but, far too often, we don’t take it. Instead we cheat ourselves, or cheat others of our better natures. We take advantage of their good will or capitalize on their inequities. We focus on the temporal offices that give us material status — Jacob’s inheritance, say, or Jaime’s hangup on becoming a brother of the Kingsguard at 15 — and by doing so, we ignore our true calling because of our arrogance and pride.

Yet, as awful as we are, we are also heroes-in-waiting. We possess wondrous gifts and are capable of tremendous achievements. We save lives and add value and create beauty. The best part of it all is that it is never too late to turn our descents into ascents, to transcend our mortal being and attain divine resonance.

There is always time regain our honor, or whatever is left of it, to don our white cloaks, and wield swords with our weak flesh to battle the demons and win the treasure. But we need to make the appropriate sacrifices as a means to attain Logos.  We have to pay attention to the spirit guiding us.

Shamans do this. They ritually die and are reborn. They commune with the divine spirit, and obtain the wisdom, words and reason to pass to others. Jacob Israel does this, but he does not fulfill the necessary sacrificial rite to complete his journey; his sacrifice was finally fulfilled with the death of Jesus, King of the Jews, on the cross.

As for Jaime Lannister … Anyone want to bet this guy won’t end up on a tree?

Jaime Iron Throne


This entry was posted in Axis Mundi, Mythology, Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Jaime’s Ladder: A Case Study of Shamanism in ASOIAF

  1. Pingback: The Cosmic Tree in ASOIAF | Plowman's Keep

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s