The Real History of Game of Thrones: The Faceless Men

The old man in the medieval mountain, Jaqen H'ghar and the Faceless Men on Game of Thrones, pack a mean hookah.

As we move into Game of Thrones Season 8, we look back at when Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) was at the House of Black and White to remember a historic hitman willing to walk into his own sword. Game of Thrones‘ Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) was very laid back for a killer, laid back in that 1970s California have-you-never-been-mellow kind of way. His eyes usually shaded as he spoke in the most profoundly wide generalizations. A girl would do this and a boy would do that, and a man has duties. Death is certain. Time is something else. Arya rejected the tenets of the Faceless Men and reclaimed her identity, but Jaqen remains a man of mystery, suspense, and a deep spiritual tradition. One which kept him perpetually high as a kite, as the wisdom of the Many-Faced God is actually stoners’ clarity. Gods are not mocked, you say? Well, this is no joking thing. The Ismaelian Sect of Islam and the Kali Thuggee cults that The Faceless Men appear to be based on were deadly serious. 

Game of Thrones is littered with assassinations. The Red Wedding assassination that took out Robb Stark, his pregnant wife Tulisa and his mother Catlyn Stark is based on Scottish history, the Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glen Coe in 1692. Robert Baratheon’s death at the hunting trip is based on the death of England’s King William II, who was shot in the chest with an arrow after a friend missed a stag. The hunting party scattered, which suggests it was no accident. It allowed Henry I to ascend to the throne.

King Joffrey Baratheon was also assassinated by his bride Margery Tyrell’s grandmother Olenna Tyrell with the help of Petyr Baelish. The poison used to kill Joffrey is known as the strangler, because it turns the victim’s face turns purple. It was loosely based on the death of Prince Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne who was the son of King Stephen of England. Some legends say the Nizari Ismaili were behind Eustace’s death.

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We first met the Faceless man when Arya saved him from burning to death in season 2. In return for his freedom, Jaqen H’ghar owed a girl three lives. He made good on his promise before the end of the season, freeing her and her friends at the mention of a name. He fed these names to the Many-Faced God, the patron saint of assassins in the world of Game of Thrones and “A Song of Ice and Fire.” For these mystical forces, Arya swept floors, took lives and ultimately gave her sight, only to see herself as others saw her, not as the no one she craved to be.

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George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel series is very loosely based on historical figures. The central action finds Martin plucking the roses of Britain’s thorniest royal houses. The guild of the Faceless Men seems to be inspired by the Hashishins, a secret order formed by the enigmatic Hasan bin Sabbah during the Crusades. Some see the Crusades as an early outbreak of Western racist imperialism. The group sometimes fought against the Crusaders and sometimes killed for them. They inspired such western secret societies as The Templars, the Society of Jesus, Priory de Sion, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucian Orders and, of course, the secret society to end all secret societies the Illuminati. Yes, we’re going there.

The link between the Assassins and the European Illuminati originated from a flyer from the ever-reliable John Birch Society, which said the Knights Templar and the Freemasons were under Hashishin influence. I first learned about the Hashishin order from the classic science fiction conspiracy novel The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. They theorize that the Bavarian Illuminati was a revised version of the Hashishin system. Nizari Ismailis were Shiite Muslims that lived in Persia and Syria during the Middle Ages. The Sunni Seljuq dynasty dismissed the Shia Nizaris as hash eaters or hashshashins. The assassins seized their mountain fort Alamut, in what is now north-western Iran. The Ishmaelian sect of Islam was founded by Hassan ibn Sabbah, the “old man of the mountains.”

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“The nightmarish story begins in 1090 A.D. in the Middle East when Hassan i Sabbah founded the Ismaelian Sect, or Hashishism, so called because of their use of hashish, a deadly drug derived from the hemp plant which is better known as the killer weed marijuana,” reads the The Illuminatus Trilogy.

“The cult terrorized the Moslem world until Genghis Khan’s Mongols brought law and order to the area. Cornered in their mountain hideaway, the Hashishism dope fiends proved no match for the clean-living Mongol warriors, their fortress was destroyed, and their dancing girls shipped to Mongolia for rehabilitation.”

Wait, dope and dancing girls? Hasan bin Sabbah reputedly taught that if nothing is true then everything is permitted and he went straight to hell for it, according to Orthodox Muslim historian Juvaini. Sabbah created a mountain paradise with the most beautiful harem girls in the world and kept his elite warriors high on hashish. He came to the conclusion that assassination was preferable to war in political maneuvering. Why kill thousands of common people when you can get the same result by taking out small group of powerful people?

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We Know

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“None of the first Faceless Men were born to lords and ladies,” Jaqen H’ghar explained to Arya on Game of Thrones. “They began as slaves in the mines of Valyria.” The first Faceless Man “was no one.” The Faceless Men founded the Free City of Braavos. They built a mighty stone structure to house the faces of this first generation, who in death found immortality on their temple’s very walls. Braavos is also home to men of many talents. Arya Stark’s dancing master hailed from Braavos. To be a dancing master is a special thing, but to be a Faceless Man has greater rewards. `

According to legend, the Ismaelian Sect got their orders from “The Old Man in the Mountain.” The Many-Faced God taught the first Faceless Man how to “shed his face and how to give the gift. The man taught others in exchange for their service. Many served, many more gifts were given. Soon, all the masters and overseers were gone and the Faceless Men fled.” The historical and heretical assassins had a reputation for insinuating themselves into a target’s area for months, long enough to pose as a local or disguising themselves as well as a chameleon.

Like a guild of assassins, the Faceless Men are headquartered in the House of Black and White, a temple that transcends the faiths of Westeros, from Essos to the Lord of Light. Iconography includes images of the Weeping Woman of Lys; the Lion of Night and the Black Goat. The thing they all have in common is death. People come to the House of Black and White for death, whether they order it as a fate for others or if they choose to drink from the poisoned pools themselves.

“The Red God takes what is his, lovely girl. And only death may pay for life. You saved me and the two I was with. You stole three deaths from the Red God. We have to give them back. Speak three names, and a man will do the rest. Three lives I will give you. No more, no less. And we’re done.”

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories

The Faceless Men are religious killers for hire. They don’t come cheap. In the books, miserly soon to be ex-King Robert Baratheon won’t spring for a contract when he wants to take out Daenerys Firstborn, the Dragon MILF. The hired assassins of Westeros are known for their anonymity. Faceless Men try their best to make it look like their marks died of natural causes. Like “The Iceman,” Richard Kuklinski, they experimented with poisons and potions, the same way the Mafia contractor co-invented aerosol arsenic.

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The Ismaelis’ usual weapon was a dagger dipped in poison. Similar to The Black Hand extortionists of Italy, they would often also leave a cake in the victims’ bed with a threatening note pinned to it. The historical assassins were the first Murder Incorporated. According to accounts from 14th-century documentarian Sir John Mandeville, the Old Man of the Mountain trained men in a fortress paradise with a walled garden, beautiful virgins, and handsome warriors. When one of the crusading knights arrived at the gates, the Old Man would give him a spiked drink and tell him he could enjoy his paradise forever if he would kill a target. If the hitman got whacked in the attempt, he was promised a paradise that made Sabbah’s place look like a dump.

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Thus Hassan ibn Sabbah is the Lucky Luciano of the Middle Ages. He is supposed to be the first one to introduce marijuana and hashish to the Western world, from India. Marco Polo was the first western figure to record the story of the Garden of Delights and the magic chemical. Sabbah didn’t invent it, evidence of hashish and marijuana spiritual preparations in the Near East went back to the Neolithic age of 5000 B.C.E. where plants were found on grave mounds.

Sabbah wasn’t peddling standard grade hash. Hassan probably mixed an almost pure black hashish with small amounts of belladonna, stramonium, mandragora, opium or bufotinin, which Medieval magicians extracted from “skin of toad,” according to noted playwright William Shakespeare.  All Hail the Hypnotoad.

The Illuminatus Trilogy suggests Hassan brought opium back from the East and that his blend produced a synergetic (or non-additive) effect. Herbal intoxicants were used in India.

“Martin skillfully incorporates the aspects of an older religion Hinduism in the mythology of the faceless men,” Marie Bargas, a Kali scholar who works at Mystic Journey Bookstore, replied to a recent query. “A god of many faces is akin to Panchmukha Shiva, the Indian deity whose wild nature is traditionally appeased with a cannabis and milk concoction (Bhang)  alongside his blood thirsty consort Kali, in whose worship the cult of the Thuggees, or ‘Thugs,’ perfected the art of silent murder.”

Murder was both a way of life and a religious duty for the Thuggee. Their killings were a means of worshiping the Hindu goddess Kali, who was honored through ritual at each stage of a murder. Kali demands blood sacrifice given ritualistically through steel. Kali is also known as the goddess of destruction, much like the icons held in the House of Black and White were all depictions of death worship. For the record, Kali is the Hindu goddess of rebirth and time, as well. The Faceless Men have a reputation for biding their time.

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The first historical reference to the Thuggee cult appears in the year 1290, 200 years after the formation of their Islamic cousins. The Thuggee’s code forbade them from killing certain groups, including women, fakirs, lepers, dancers, sweepers, oil vendors, carpenters, blacksmiths, Ganges water-carriers, Europeans, and musicians. This means that the Thuggees in the Beatles’ movie Help were breaking their own code.

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The Thuggees kept things in the family. They were known as the Stranglers and their weapon of choice was the garrote. Thugs were respected by the criminal community. Learning to be a Thug was like training with a guru. The Illuminatus Trilogy states that there are nine stages of Hashishim training, but does not list them.

The Hashishim were crushed by the Mongols because the hordes travelled from a land that the group had not yet infiltrated. The Mongols destroyed the assassins’ Alamut headquarters in 1256. The Syrian branch survived into the 14th century.

The Faceless Men led an ascetic life and their faraway stare may or may not have anything to do with chemical stimulation. Modern Islamic terror groups are also believed to be ascetic, but many sources say that crystal meth is one of their study aids.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories

The Faceless Men bid Arya farewell with a renewed respect and a hearty “Valar morghulis” when she left the girl she used to be in Braavos to reclaim her identity. Now she stands proudly, if discretely, with her family in the north as a Stark. 

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A version of this article was originally published on June 6, 2018.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.