Seasons are a strange thing in Game of Thrones. Unlike the dependable calendar of our world, a good Westerosi summer can last for a decade or more before the leaves change and Starbucks breaks out the pumpkin spice. On the flip side, that means the winters can last a long time too, which is probably why the Starks won't shut up about it. They have good reason -- for all they know, the coming frost might be as bad as the one told in tales. According to legend, about 8,000 years before Jon Snow was but a twinkle in his father's lavender eye, there was a winter so terrible and enduring that it lasted a generation. It is said that many people lived and died without ever knowing the kiss of spring.
If you've rewatched the series recently, you might remember part of this tale from the first season. Old Nan tells a busted Bran of a winter so brutal that mothers would smother their infants in their sleep so they wouldn't have to die of starvation (she does leave out the presumed side effect of bonus baby meat). This era, known as The Long Night, killed tens of thousands, likely much more. Those who didn't succumb to famine were in danger of being buried by dozens of feet of snow that piled up across the land. Though Old Nan may or may not have been embellishing her tale, it's tough not to be stirred by the image of tears turning to ice on the cheeks of the doomed, or kings freezing in their own castles.
And then, of course, there were the Others.
As Sam notes in the fourth book, A Feast for Crows: "The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night... or else night falls when they emerge." It probably doesn't matter. Either way, during The Long Night, scores of ghastly wights walked the woods and countrysides, killing indiscriminantly. They swept across Westeros easily, in part thanks to the fact that pretty much every enemy they killed rose again as an icy undead member of their legion.
Some of this might not come as a surprise to a fan of the show, because at this point we've seen at least part of what the White Walkers are capable of. But what they neglected to show are the fucking ice spiders.
Congratulations, you now have a new worst nightmare! Gargantuan spiders have been used to great effect in fantasy universes like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but there's something especially unsettling about the image above. Not only are these spiders huge and gnarly, but they're being weaponized by malevolent ice zombies. If Satan had a three-way with Genghis Khan and one of those creepy lantern fish you only find at the bottom of the ocean, these malevolent arachnids would be holding the camera.
You'd think that something like "giant ice spiders" would be the product of an in-universe fable, perpetuated in Westeros after thousands of years' worth of storytellers kept exaggerating their tales. Yet, these very horrors are mentioned in three out of five books, and twice so far in the TV show. Hell, the image above is an official illustration created for an encyclopedia for the universe, the World of Ice and Fire. Giant ice spiders were almost certainly used in The Long Night, and judging by how things are going up North, that's probably not the last we've seen of them.
Though those who fought the War of the Dawn managed to beat back the forces of evil and build The Wall to keep the Others out, Westeros has grown complacent in the centuries since. The White Walkers have become a figment of myth, a scary bedtime story. We know that anyone who says that the Others don't exist are sorely misguided; anyone who believes that giant ice spiders are similarly imaginary might be making the same mistake.
The Lannisters are known for three things: their riches, their cunning and and their gloomy theme song. You've probably heard "The Rains of Castamere" before; it was the anthem of the Red Wedding, after all, and it's hard to forget the background music that played when a pregnant lady got stabbed in the baby. Since that scene is still all you can see when you close your eyes, you probably remember that Catelyn Stark realized something was up the moment that the band started playing. That's because the song is known across the land as the musical equivalent of a Lannister death threat. Despite its renown, The Rains of Castamere hasn't actually been around that long -- it was actually Tywin himself that inspired the morbid jingle.
So what's the song actually about? Well, to answer that, we have to go back in time about 50 years before the Starks first found their direwolves. At this point in time, Tywin is still an upstart -- his dad, Tytos Lannister, rules as lord of Casterly Rock. The thing is, Tytos isn't at all like the Lannisters you're already familiar with. Instead of a shrewd and devious power player, Papa Lannister is softer than a baby panda napping on a sponge cake. All of the bannermen Tytos is supposedly in charge of have made a game of seeing just how far they can push the pushover. "Twisting the lion's tail," they called it. Everyone around him seized on this weakness, asking for loans and favors they never intended on repaying. Through it all, Tytos laughed it off, like the oblivious stepdad that just wants Westeros to love him.
It seems like Tytos passed on all of his Lannisterness to his son Tywin, who even as a teenager bristled at his family name going down the chamber pot. Tywin probably figured that by the time he takes over, the Lannister name will have been sullied beyond salvation. At just 19 years old, Tywin decided to do something about it. He sent out letters to all the lords and bannermen, demanding that all debts be repaid, or barring that, a family hostage be sent to live with the Lannisters until such a time that the financial matter was settled. In other words, Tywin was reminding everyone just who ruled Castlerly Rock.
Some of the locals comply, but many others chuckle at the sight of the bill. They didn't think Tywin was serious -- and why would they? He was just a punk kid at the time. Those who scoffed at the Lannister threat probably assumed that any spawn of Tytos inherited the spine of the Wacky Inflatable Tube Man. Two families in particular, the Tarbecks and the Reynes, stood in defiance against the Lannisters. There was some back and forth for a while, hostages were taken and then swapped back, but after a year or so Tywin had enough. He sent out word to both the Tarbecks and the Reynes, demanding that they come to Casterly Rock to come clean about being such unrepentant dickwads. Both families took this as an act of war, and renounced their loyalty to the House Lannister. Like a future Darwin Award winner who just said "Hold my wine goblet," this was the last mistake either house would ever make.
Without telling anyone, Tywin -- again, not even out of his teens -- grabbed 500 soldiers and marched over to the Tarbecks. It was a god damned bloodbath. The Tarbecks weren't even close to prepared for the shitstorm headed their way. Everyone from Lord Walderan Tarbeck to his sons-in-law were decapitated, their heads impaled on spears. When the rest of the Tarbecks retreated to the castle, Tywin broke out the siege engines and destroyed the god damned castle. The Tarbecks barely had time to warn the Reynes before they were wiped out completely. All that remained of Tarbeck Hall was a smoldering husk.
Were the Reynes scared after witnessing their neighbors get snuffed out of existence? No. For whatever reason, maybe because they were the second-richest family in the land, they thought they stood a chance. Unfortunately for them, the Reynes severely underestimated how far Tywin would go to remind Westeros what happens to those who cross the Lannisters.
The Reynes tried Tywin's trick, launching an early attack to catch their foes off-guard -- but it didn't work. The Lannisters boasted a force several times larger than the Reynes, who soon lost half of their men in the ill-advised assault. At this point, the Reynes fell back to their castle, the vaunted (and damned) Castamere. Starting to put the name of the song together?
So what made the Reynes think they could take on the guys who bleached the name "Tarbeck" out of the history books? Well, the Reynes had Castamere, an epic castle that was basically an iceberg on land -- topside, the hold was unexceptional, but the other 90% of the keep was hidden below ground. These chambers, carved out of former mines, is where the 300 remaining Reynes fled. They did send up an offer of surrender, but Tywin wasn't having it. It was too late for that. The Reynes had to be an example.
Now, it would be pretty hard to assault Castamere with just men. Subterannean tunnels are no place for an army. The Reynes were banking on the Lannisters knowledge that a long and drawn out fight would be pretty costly. So what does Tywin do? He doesn't send in a single soldier. Instead, he just seals up every exit to the mines so no human could pass through. And then Tywin Lannister filled all of Castamere with water from a nearby stream. It is said that on the first night, guards could make out the wails of those trapped inside. By the second night, there were no screams to be heard.
There were no survivors. Every single person in Castamere drowned.
The Reynes, once the second-richest House next to the Lannisters themselves, were completely eradicated. Centuries of history ended, the family tree sheared, now dormant and dead. From then on, no one fucked with Tywin. Any time someone stepped out of line, the Lannisters didn't send an army or an assassin or a passive-agressive text. Instead, offenders would be met with a single bard singing the "Rains of Castamere," a ghoulish retelling of what befell a house that stood against the Lannisters. Remembering what Tywin was capable of was more than enough to put even the most staunch opponents back in shape.
As it turns out, even a song about a horrible mass murder can be pretty catchy.
It's been said that whenever a Targeryen is born, the gods flip a coin. If it lands one way, the child will grow into a just and righteous person who will at least try to do the right thing -- Daenerys, for example. If it lands on the other side, however, you get a sick demented prick, like Dany's late brother Viserys. This rule has proven pretty reliable throughout the history of Westeros. You can see it with the most famous Targeryen, known as Aegon the Conquerer; he was the guy who swept across Westeros with a few dragons and united all the kingdoms. Though somewhat ruthless in his pursuit of a noble goal, Aegon's brutality was nothing compared to his son, called Maegor the Cruel. Guess which side of the coin landed on when he was born?
From the start, nobody liked Maegor. He was an asshole, straight-up. Worse than people who steal your lunch out of the work fridge, worse than manspreaders who take up three seats on the bus, even worse than that roommate who let his dishes rot in the sink for eight months, I mean Jesus Christ. Maybe the most messed up part of it all -- Maegor was never supposed to be the king. He ascended to the throne when his brother Aenys Targaryen ate it (under mysterious circumstances), even though the law of the land clearly dictated that Aenys' son succeed his father. It would be like if Donald Trump suddenly died, and instead of Mike Pence taking his seat, Tiffany Trump stepped in and named herself the new President of the World. When the resident Grand Maester brought up this little quibble, the guy claiming to be the "rightful king" had the dissenter's head cut off.
As Maegor the Cruel continued to justify his title, he lost the loyalty of everyone around him. It didn't help that he was at constant war with the church, and scorched many of the faithful atop his dragon. At one point during his crusade, Maegor brought home 2,000 skulls, claiming that they belonged to his fallen foes. Pretty much everyone saw through the act, however; it was far more likely that the bones belonged to innocent farmfolk purposely misidentified, much like when Theon Greyjoy "killed" the Stark boys Bran and Rickon. Suffice it to say, the people were probably terrified to play Scrabble with Maegor, much less have him as their ruler.
Time passed, and Maegor found himself more and more isolated. Almost all of his allies had either died or turned their backs on him. When Maegor summoned those loyal to him to fight against his many enemies, those that complied were paltry in number. Crestfallen, the king was left to stew by himself in the main hall one night. In the morning, his body was found atop the Iron Throne -- which, in the books, looks like this:
Maegor's wrists were slashed on what appeared to be the very blades that made up the Iron Throne. Some suspected foul play, perhaps at the hand of a disgruntled Kingsguard or one of the fifty million other people Maegor had pissed off. But many have suggested that it was Maegor himself that slit his own wrists on the tangled mass of swords they call a chair. The idea being that he saw the end coming sooner than later, and he'd rather go out on his own terms if he was to go out at all.
When it comes to the Game of Thrones, the bad guys win a lot. Yet, after the wretched win the day, they still have to rule. When Aegon the Conquerer forged that hellish La-Z-Boy out of the weapons of his fallen enemies, he designed it so that anyone ruling could never be comfortable. In more than one way, those who reign in Westeros are often killed by the throne. And as Maegor found out, for those who do survive, it's lonely at the top. And that's a big damned chair.
For the most part, if a place is "cursed," people don't usually hang around. One odd exception is Harrenhal, a partially-destroyed castle that is constantly in use by Westerosi lords. Show-watchers will recognize it as the place Arya is sent to during the second season; it's the same place she meets the face-changing Jaquen Hagar and later served as cup-bearer for one Tywin Lannister. So when and how did Harrenhal become cursed? Well, it sort of has to do with why the castle looks like a collection of giant, half-melted candles.
About 300 years before Arya's arrival at Harrenhal, Aegon Targaryen was beginning his quest to unite the kingdoms of Westeros. The conquest was going pretty well, all told, especially since Aegon was winning the favor of local lords. Smaller houses are much more likely to pledge fealty to a new player if they're under the command of a Grade-A Buttmunch like Harren the Black, then lord of Harrenhal. A graduate of the Maegor School for Assholery, Harren's wanton cruelty eroded the trust and loyalty of those around him. By the time Aegon came knocking on Harrenhal's door, Harren the Black had no choice but to hole up inside.
To be fair to Harren here, his hall is a grand one. In comparison, Winterfell is only about a third as big as Harrenhal, and at the time the keep boasted an impressive array of defenses. But None of that stopped Aegon from marching up to the gate and demanding that Harren the Black and his family pledge their loyalty to House Targaryen. Unlike Tywin Lannister, Aegon was giving these guys a choice: "Be my subject, or be annihilated." Harren literally spat at the idea of bending the knee, reasoning that even dragons couldn't take on Harrenhal's thick stone walls.
Oh, how wrong he was.
Harrenhal was decimated. In the face of dragonfire, its once mighty towers wilted like flowers in the summer sun. No members of Harren's house survived. As a wise knight once put it: "He chose... poorly."
From then on, almost anyone unlucky enough to take lordship over Harrenhal was met with tragedy in one way or another. Take Lord Gargon Qoherys, for instance. This creepy shitbag would come to every wedding in his domain, just so he could exercise the "lord's right to the first night" -- that is to say, he abused an old law that legally allowed him to have sex with any bride on their wedding night. Soon enough, a disgruntled father of one of the violated women snuck in a bunch of outlaws into Harrenhal, who in turn murdered and castrated the scumbag(though probably not in that order). Gargon was the last of the House Qoherys to lay claim over Harrenhal, as the family line was extinguished not long after.
Right after Gorgon ate it, the Harroways took over. At first, they were met with good luck when Lord Lucas Harroways' daughter was married to the king. But that fortune was false, because the king in question was Maegor the Cruel, who exterminated the Harroways in an especially violent tantrum. And that's why you haven't ever heard of House Harroway.
With the seat to Harrenhall up for grabs, King Maegor thought he'd make a game out of picking the successor. The "game" in this case being a battle to the death. Almost two dozen men showed up to audition for Westeros' Got Talent: Deathmatch Edition, and Ser Walton Towers emerged victorious... only to die of his wounds after the fact. The Towers didn't last three generations. Starting to notice a pattern here?
House Strong met the curse when Lord Lyonel Strong and his son were killed in a fire on the Harrenhal grounds. The remaining Strong heir was executed by a Stark.
House Lothston famously went out with a bang when Lady Danelle Lothston abused black magic.
Petyr Baelish, aka Littlefinger is technically lord of Harrenhal at the most current point in the story. That might not bode well for him.
Harrenhal is a living ghost town, haunted by the spirits of those arrogant enough to think they owned it. You'd think that no one in their right mind would agree to rule over Harrenhal, but stranger things have happened. After all, being on the cover of a Madden NFL video game has been scientifically proven to bring bad luck, but athletes still agree to pose for those photos.
With the other backstories on this list, we can point to specific parts of the books other other official texts for evidence of the depicted events, but this is a little different. The sweeping ballad known as "Southron Ambitions" is technically a fan theory, but it's so logical and well thought-out that it seems all but certain to many diehards. It's a tough story to sum up all in one sentence, but basically it sets up the entirety of what we see in the War of the Five Kings. Southron Ambitions was like its own series before Game of Thrones. It all revolves around Ned Stark's dad, Rickard Stark; unlike his dull but well-meaning son, Papa Direwolf actually dirtied his hands with the intrigue and deception that everyone else in Westeros is familiar with. It was all for a good cause, at least: To unseat the tyrannical King Aerys Targeryen.
Before we get into the conspiratorial, we should go over the surface-level events that most everyone can agree on. See, the Mad King Aerys had a son named Rhaegar Targeryen; unlike his wild-eyed dad, Rhaegar was mostly a reasonable, well-liked guy. The only problem was that he supposedly "kidnapped" Ned's sister, Lyanna Stark -- who just so happened to be engaged to Robert Baratheon. Brandon Stark (Ned's brother, the one who was originally supposed to marry Catelyn) rolled up to King's Landing, believing that's where Rhaegar had Lyanna stashed away. Of course, marching up to a king widely believed to be insane and demanding that his son answer for his crimes is a great way to get yourself immediately arrested, but that's a Stark for you. To follow that up, King Aerys demanded that Rickard come to King's Landing to answer for his traitorous son Brandon, and Rickard agreed, because that's a Stark for you.
What happened next was an act of legendary cruelty. Rickard demanded a trial by combat, and Aerys obliged -- but instead of picking a strong warrior for his champion, the Mad King chose fire. As in, the thing Wikipedia calls "the rapid oxidization of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion." And so Rickard was strung up to "fight" fire while dangling from a rope over and open flame, while his son watched. Irredeemable prick that he was, Aerys placed a sword near Brandon and said that he may save his father if he managed to cut him down, but there was a catch: moving towards the sword tightened the noose around Brandon's neck. Both Rickard and Brandon watched each other die, one from immolation, the other from strangulation.
The rest, as they say, is fake history. Enraged, Robert and Ned teamed up with much of Westeros for a righteous rebellion, which saw the demise of almost every remaining Targaryen. But it almost didn't happen that way. If Rickard's schemes went according to plan, it would have been Rhaegar who ended up on the Iron Throne, not Robert. The plot was obviously a failure, but its ambition was remarkable in scope -- all from a Stark, no less.
Leading up to Robert's Rebellion, Rickard had been secretly consolidating power to unseat Mad King Aerys and make Westeros a more stable place to live for everyone. It all started just after something called the War of the Ninepenny Kings. You don't need to know anything about that comparatively minor conflict other than it brought together Rickard Stark, Steffon Baratheon (father to Robert/Renly/Stannis), Jon Arryn, Hoster Tully (father to Catelyn) and everyone's favorite mine-drowner Tywin Lannister. Following the war, everyone got pretty chummy with one another (with the exception of Tywin, who hates most people). So it made sense that they started forcibly pairing their kids with each other like so many Sims. Robert and Ned were sent to the Vale to be fostered with the Arryns and become best bros; Catelyn Tully was engaged to Brandon Stark; Robert was engaged to Lyanna, and so on.
Arranged marriages are pretty standard stuff in Westeros, but this sequence of events was way out of the ordinary. Usually lords would pair their children with those belonging to bannermen or other close friends of their respective house -- but what that's not what was happening here. On the advice of of Maester Warlys (who may or may not have been the real mastermind here), Rickard sent one kid to marry a Tully, which is a big deal, and another kid to go hang out with Baratheon in House Arryn, another big deal. Rickard even had designs to marry off adolescent breastfeeding enthusiast Lysa Tully to Jamie Lannister before the latter got roped into lifelong servitude in the Kingsguard. None of this was a mistake. Such a rapid succession of power-couplings was definitely intentional, and it's hard to think that these bonds were made for any other reason other than overthrowing the Mad King. You don't forge a powerful five-house alliance just to fill seats at Board Game Night.
Even Rhaegar was on board with ousting Aerys. As Jamie remembers in A Feast for Crows, Rhaegar mentioned that he was going to call a big meeting and settle affairs. But this is the same Rhaegar who kidnapped/ran away with/made kissy faces at Lyanna Stark, which blew up everyone's best-laid plans. If that affair didn't happen, then Brandon and Rickon wouldn't have gotten themselves murdered, and Robert wouldn't have any reason to smash Rhaegar's face in with a giant hammer. Just one act of true love (or maybe uh, sexual assault) was all it took to obliterate a meticulous plan that would have saved tens of thousands of lives.
The most ironic part of all this? For much of King Aerys' reign, he was constantly petrified at the thought of invisible forces closing in around him. Like Hitler during World War II, the Mad King saw countless conspiracies where there were none. But at least in the case of Rickard's Southron Ambitions, he was absolutely right. There really were people consorting in secret to take away Aerys' power. It goes to show you -- just because you're paranoid, that doesn't mean everyone isn't out to get you.