Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere.
When Jon Snow finally learned the truth about his own past, in the season premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones, it wasn’t the first time the crypts beneath Winterfell played backdrop to a significant moment for the show.
From King Robert Baratheon’s visit to the statue of Lyanna Stark in the first season to the reunion between Arya and Sansa Stark in the most recent — not to mention the action in one of the Season 8 teasers, and in the opening credits for the season’s first episode — the Starks and those around them have turned repeatedly to the underground structure for privacy, prayerfulness or safety. And the crypt is more than just a place to go. Its lower level is a place of great mystery (and fan theories), and it holds powerful meaning for the Starks. The young Jon Snow was haunted by the idea that — as a Snow — he doesn’t belong there; in the book A Storm of Swords, he tells Sam Tarly that his dreams are of the crypts but he knows that “no place has been set” for him.
George R.R. Martin has said that parts of the A Song of Ice and Fire books are roughly inspired by real history, especially the War of the Roses in 15th century England, and — despite the obvious fantastical elements of the show — the actual past has provided plenty of insight into the plot over the years.
The crypts beneath Winterfell are no exception.
In Viking and Anglo-Saxon early medieval pagan traditions, the burial of important people would have involved the construction of barrows, says Duncan Sayer, a reader in archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire who studies burial practices. (The importance of these burial mounds, he points out, can be seen in Beowulf: the awakening of the dragon, which begins one of the story’s final sequences, happens after a thief sneaks into the barrow where the dragon guards his treasure.) But, by around the 7th and 8th centuries, as Christianity spread, people in areas like England picked up a new custom: crypts.
Sayer traces the idea back to Rome, where early Christian basilicas were built over the spots thought to be the tombs of the saints. Pilgrims were eager to visit the holy sites and to see the sacred relics there. A crypt — a separate structure below the church, connected to the sacred space but architecturally separate and with its own entrance — was a way for a church to allow people to visit the relics it held without disturbing the activity in the main space. One good early English example of this set-up can still be seen at Ripon Cathedral, in North Yorkshire; as the church points out today, it was specifically built “so that pilgrims could pass through and venerate the saintly relics kept there.” Medieval churches would also take commonly advantage of the separate door to charge pilgrims an entry fee.
“You can access not just the posh box that [the relics] are in,” Sayer says, “but probably also open it and venerate the bones.”
Such closeness with human remains was very important, he says, and was not seen as disgusting or creepy. Rather, closeness with the dead was an opportunity for a form of communication with them, as that sort of prayer was thought to encourage those souls to help the supplicant. One’s ancestors were also seen as wielding power over how a person acted during life, as well as where one ended up after death.
“You want to be able to touch those bones, you want to see them, you want to pray near them,” he says, “because they have the power to heal you. That’s one of the points of going to particular saints or particular ancestors. They have agency to influence your life.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the respect that went along with such a space, monarchs eventually wanted to have crypts of their own, whether or not they were seen as saints in addition to rulers (though it was common to be both). For example, Aethelbald of Mercia, an 8th century king, was buried in a royal crypt at what is now Repton Village in Derbyshire. “They’re sacred, royal spaces and they’re very much controlled by those individuals,” Sayer says.
The statues that mark the crypts at Winterfell do depart somewhat from the real-life crypt tradition; Sayer says the Stark effigies are “definitely a fantasy.”
In the late Middle Ages, he explains, wealthy people did begin to build effigies in churches, but those wouldn’t typically have been located inside crypts, because that would defeat the purpose. “The effigies are fantastic in church spaces but you wouldn’t see them in crypts. You want them in the church to show them off to the parishioners,” Sayer says. (Burial vaults within churches for wealthy families began to proliferate after the Reformation, and the idea that a wealthy but non-royal person might be buried in essentially a private crypt spreads much later, in Victorian times. Mausoleums, which are above-ground structures, also come later.)
Such statuary was full of symbolism: a man might have a lion at his feet as a symbol of strength or courage, and a woman with a dog meant loyalty. The direwolves at the feet of the Starks likewise have obvious positive meaning, even though (non-dire) wolves in medieval art more frequently represent negative qualities such as heresy.
In several ways, then, the crypts beneath Winterfell stick close to the real history.
Just as the crypts on Game of Thrones are meant to be specifically the burial place of Kings of Winter, Kings in the North and Lords of Winterfell, in real life being laid to rest in a crypt meant that a person was extremely important. Jon Snow’s feeling that there would be no place for him in the Stark crypt was a reasonable one, too. The idea that a visitor like Robert Baratheon would come to the crypt to pay respects, as a pilgrim would, is also realistic. And, even if effigies would be more appropriately found in a space like a sept or godswood, the stone direwolves have real parallels.
The strength of one more possible analogy remains to be seen: Whether the fantasy crypt is, like its real predecessors, a place of contact with the dead.