Last week’s season premiere of Game of Thrones was mostly reintroduction of key characters and concepts from season one, so I’ve held off on a review until this week’s episode. The premiere episode didn’t have a ton of “historical” material, but this week’s episode introduces one of the new cultures that will be seen this season: the Iron Islands, a dependency of the Seven Kingdoms located off of Westeros’ western shore, at the midpoint between Stark and Lannister territory.
I have been looking forward to this episode for some time. The Iron Islanders, or “Iron Men”, are major players in the novels, and have a distinctive culture strongly reminiscent of the medieval Norse. Their geography and culture make them similar to the Norse inhabitants of the Shetland and Orkney Islands in medieval Britain, although considerably further south along the coast, at the approximate midway point between the northern and southern kingdoms occupied by the real-life Isle of Man.
Religion: Unlike the Northerners, who are animists and worship tree-gods, or the Southerners who are polytheists, the Iron Islanders are monotheists who worship a “Drowned God” of the sea. The Drowned God is similar to polytheistic gods such as Neptune/Poseidon or Njord, but differs in that he is not part of a pantheon. Adherents of the Drowned God engage in simple rituals, including a form of baptism that involves simulated drowning, and the drinking of salt water as a form of eucharist.
Economy: The Iron Islanders do not farm, and instead live from what they can catch from the sea. This includes fish and larger prey such as merchant vessels, which the Iron Islanders often raid. They also mine the rich iron deposits located underneath the islands, though given their disdain for commerce they prefer to fashion the iron into weapons rather than export it.
Culture: As a warrior, sea-faring culture, the Iron Islanders engage in little trade, creating a distinction between the “gold price” of a good through commerce and the “iron price” of seizing it through warfare. They have few horses, preferring instead to fight from the decks of their longships. This means that while they are a terror upon the water, they have little organization in sustained warfare nor the ability to move far inland, a limiting factor given their location on the far side of Westeros, away from most of the action in the war and the main commercial trade routes.
In the TV show, the Iron Islands are filmed at an appropriately rugged location in Northern Ireland. Here are a couple of photos of the fictitious locations, and then three from the Orkneys and Shetlands:
A nice fit.