Warning: This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones.
At the end of “Winterfell,” the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, Tormund Giantsbane, Beric Dondarrion and others stumble upon a terrifying sight inside the Last Hearth: the body of young Ned Umber splayed against the wall, surrounded by a spiral of severed limbs. When the body reanimates as a wight—marking one of the show’s most terrifying jump scares in recent memory—Beric quickly stabs it, setting the spiral ablaze.
This is far from the first time we’ve seen this type of imagery on the HBO series. For Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the spiral has become a key piece of symbolism in the show’s greater mythology.
Spirals appeared in the show’s opening moments when a group of Night Watchmen come across a circular pile of bodies that the White Walkers have left behind. These patterns have become a grisly calling card following White Walker carnage—and also serve as a constant reminder of the conflict that led to the White Walkers being created in the first place.
The symbol reappears in season 3, when Jon Snow has been captured by a wildling party that includes Mance Rayder and Ygritte. When the party arrives at the Fist of the First Men, they find an enormous spiral of decapitated horses. They quickly realize the horse’s riders are missing and have become reanimated to join the army of the dead.
The origins of the symbol are partially explained when Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven travel back in time to witness the creation of the first White Walker in season 6. The Children of the Forest—creatures who lived in Westeros before the First Men migrated to the continent—sought a weapon to defeat the humans in a desperate centuries-long war for dominance. In the scene, the Children of the Forest create a seven-armed spiral of stones around the Weirwood tree and proceed to stab a dragonglass dagger through the heart of a First Man; his eyes turn blue, and he becomes a White Walker.
And when Jon Snow takes Daenerys Targaryen into the dragonglass cave a season later, they find the walls filled with circles and spirals—many of which have seven arms—that were drawn by the Children of the Forest.
In a post-episode discussion, Benioff confirmed that the White Walkers inherited the symbol from their creators. “One of the things we learn from these cave paintings is that the White Walkers didn’t come up with those images, they derived them from their creators, the Children of the Forest,” he said. “These are patterns that have mystical significance for the Children of the Forest. We’re not sure exactly what they signify, but spiral patterns are important in a lot of different cultures in our world, and it makes sense that they would be in this world as well.”
In the real world, archeologists have unearthed ancient spirals around the world, from Glastonbury Tor to Babylonian Ziggurats. In various cultures, the symbol has represented rebirth or progression.
The spiral also mimics the Golden Ratio, which one Reddit user speculated could relate to the White Walker’s greater ambitions: “I think it represents that what the COTF [Children of the Forest] did disrupted the balance in magic, creating ice and fire magic separated from each other. They are using the symbols because their mission is to get back to that state of harmony.”
Other fans believe that the spiral is connected to the Targaryen sigil, which features a dragon whose body is arranged in a circular formation.
It also could be significant that many of the spirals—including the one surrounding Umber—have seven arms. Seven is a powerful number in Game of Thrones: it marks the number of Kingdoms, and the number of gods in one of Westeros’s most prominent religions, The Faith of the Seven.
It’s still unclear what exactly is driving the White Walkers to march south and wreak havoc on Westeros—the Night King, after all, hasn’t yet said a word. But it’s clear that their origin story looms large—if not in their motivations, at least in their artistry.