What the Braavosi Think: About Courtesans, For Instance
Sometime ago we had a little back and forth with Steven Atwell about the social status possessed by the courtesans of Braavos. He believes they have a parallel in the cortigiana onesta of Renaissance Italy, while we think the closest resemblance is to found in 20th and 21st century celebrity culture. In our view, drawing on Renaissance parallels leads one to ignore major differences between fantasy Braavosi and historical Venice, as well as overlook how the courtesans are actually presented within the story. This in turn leads one to miss how the courtesans fit into Braavosi culture as a whole.
Where Braavos is concerned one should not make too much of any Venetian similarities. Medieval and Renaissance Venice was a worldly, commercial city but a Roman Catholic society. In A Song of Ice and Fire the closest equivalent to Catholicism is the Westerosi Faith of the Seven, so this takes us not to Braavos but west Across the Water. Now, Renaissance distinctions between the cortigiana onesta and the cortigiana di lume might have some parallel in what socially separates the paramours from the prostitutes in Dorne, where the strictures of the Faith are leavened by worldly Rhoynish customs and a very hot climate. Ellaria Sand, the one lifelong paramour we’ve gotten a very good look at, is not a wellborn lady. Rather, she’s Lord Harmen Uller’s bastard daughter. She is educated (knows her history), sophisticated (worships a Lysene love goddess), and confident (looks Cersei in the eye), but can only rise so high because she is baseborn. Rather revealing, for all that Prince Oberyn loves her and their children, they never formally marry, suggesting a social taboo that even the bad-boy Red Viper cannot bring himself to defy. Yet the Dornish consider paramours very different from whores, and hence owed a certain degree of respect; when the Queen of Thorns calls Ellaria “the Serpent’s whore” it results in an “ugly confrontation in the yard” (SoS, Tyrion VI). Presumably any man who dared say what Lady Olenna had said would have received a challenge from Prince Oberyn in short order. Of course this insult to Ellaria’s status is also an insult to Oberyn’s honor, because paramours, unlike whores, are not dishonorable to maintain and favor (in Dorne at least):
“So do others,” suggested Gerris Drinkwater. “Naharis, for one. The queen’s …”
“… paramour,” Ser Barristan finished, before the Dornish knight could say anything that might besmirch the queen’s honor. “That is what you call them down in Dorne, is it not?” He did not wait for a reply. (DwD, The Discarded Knight)
Barristan’s interjection highlights that not all paramours are women. Princess Arianne effectively takes Ser Arys Oakheart as her paramour (although the Princess only ever applies the title to him in jest, it essentially is what he becomes regardless). One can’t help but notice that, whenever paramours are mentioned, the one constant in each and every case is that the relationship cannot travel through the sept to the marriage bed owing to distinctions in birth, vows of celibacy, political undesirability or a preexisting spouse. No matter one’s qualities, to be a paramour is to occupy an intermediate position, above a whore, below a wife or husband.
But the courtesans of Braavos are not lovers or mistresses, as the Dornish paramours are. The most successful courtesan is an independent figure; her status does not come about through a long-term relationship with a high ranking man who she cannot marry. Nor is the courtesan a fixture or inhabitant of some lord or merchant prince’s court or salon. The relationships that make the courtesan who she is are multiple, fluid, complex, public, and predominately commercial. But she is not selling her body; she is selling the character, the image, the aura she has constructed using her mind and body. Now, most Andals would see no real difference between a courtesan and a prostitute, just as most Andals see no real difference between a paramour and a prostitute. The popular and metaphysical dichotomy between good women (maids, mothers, crones) and whores is just too deeply embedded in Andal culture for it to be otherwise. But the Braavosi are not Andals. So the question becomes: what sort of culture do the Braavosi have? Is there any reason to think they would be unable to draw the same distinction we just made, a distinction that is completely foreign to Andal society?
Religiously, Braavos is another world from Westeros. The city’s founding laws grant complete freedom of religion and there is no formally established faith. In theory all gods are honored in Braavos. This secularism, this transference of the duties of faith from the state machinery to the private realm, is something alien to the Classical or Medieval world. In our own history this is unique to the modern era, and it makes Braavosi society very different from both Andal Westeros and Renaissance Italy. Within Braavos there is a no single, state sanctioned religious authority but rather a mélange of competing or coexisting private creeds. Yandal says the city’s numerous temples shelter around one hundred different deities (World Book 275). The two greatest faiths, those of the Moonsingers and R’hllorites, are eastern in origin. The Moonsinger faith originated in the steppe lands east of the Bone Mountains, while the worship of R’hllor seems to have emerged in the Summer Sea during the later Valyrian empire.
The Moonsingers have the largest temple in Braavos, a prestigious history, and presumably a plurality of the city’s worshippers. What the Braavosi Moonsinger religion has to say on sexual matters is almost completely unknown. Among the Jogos Nhai, women bind their heads and shave all the hair from their bodies, are expected to abduct their husbands, and are allowed to take men’s occupations if they dress and live as men.* The Jogos Nhai priesthood is also composed entirely of women and crossdressing men. But we do not know to what degree the original traditions of the steppe dwelling, zorse riding Jogos Nhai have been retained among the lagoon dwelling, nautical Braavosi. The Braavosi are not renowned for head binding, cross dressing or hairlessness, unlike the Jogos Nhai, which suggests that the original religion has indeed undergone some changes. In any case, their tenets are probably a bit different from those of the all-male Septans in the Sept-Across-the-Sea.
Close behind the Moonsingers in adherents, dwellings, and prestige is Red R’hllor, the Lord of Light, Heart of Flame, and God of Fire and Shadow. This deity’s militaristic Manichean morality, which includes child sacrifice, is fairly…different, in-universe and out. Based on Melisandre’s wedding sermon we know that R’hllor is apparently something of a fertility god:
“R’hllor,” sang Melisandre, her arms upraised against the falling snow, “you are the light in our eyes, the fire in our hearts, the heat in our loins. Yours is the sun that warms our days, yours the stars that guard us in the dark of night.” (DwD, Jon X)
Fittingly, the R’hllorites wholeheartedly embrace magically-weaponized sex in their struggle against the Great Other:
“The Lord of Light in his wisdom made us male and female, two parts of a greater whole. In our joining there is power. Power to make life. Power to make light. Power to cast shadows.” (DwD Jon VI)
More mundane is the practice of sacred prostitution within R’hllor’s Red Temples:
“The red temple buys [its slaves] as children and makes them priests or temple prostitutes or warriors.” (DwD, Tyrion VII)
The R’hllorite’s are not unique in this. Summer Islanders and many other Eastern faiths also practice sacred prostitution. When Tyrion spies some ladies in colored silks at his auction, knowledge of temple prostitution leads him to muse that the women are “Whores or priestesses, most like; this far east it was hard to tell the two apart” (DwD, Tyrion X). The R’hllorite’s sacred prostitutes do not, however, give us much insight into their attitudes regarding sex in everyday society. Is Red Temple prostitution the only morally-approved prostitution or does the Red Temple give moral approval to secular prostitution also, provided the prostitutes tithe R’hllor and thus side with the Lord over his Great Opposite? Is it a minor sin that can be burned away through adherence and sacrifice to R’hllor? What should we make of the fact that, outside of Braavos, many of R’hllor’s adherents are women brutally forced into lives of sexual slavery? (It certainly adds a whole new dimension to Melisandre’s shadow babies.) We suspect that the priests of the R’hllorite faith are rather understanding of the compromises the corrupt world forces upon its parishioners, provided said parishioners support and obey the Lord of Light, otherwise why would the religion be so popular? But really, how the sexual aspect of a R’hlloirte courtesan’s profession would fit in with her private faith is anyone’s guess.
This naturally leads us to the simple fact that religions are not all-or-nothing institutions, however much religious leaders like to pretend that they are. The Sailor’s Wife’s faux-weddings are often presided over by Ezzelyno, a drunken red priest. It’s hard to imagine his superiors approving of such blasphemous conduct, but Ezzelyno seems cheerful. He might actually believe that he is doing the Lord’s work. Alternatively he doesn’t believe anymore and has, like Thoros of Myr, fallen into a life of idle hedonism, living off the tricks he learned in the Red Temple. It is possible that disestablishmentarianism and attitudes of atheism, agnosticism, skepticism, and moral relativism largely unique to Braavos have weakened or diluted the power of traditional moral strictures (if the Father Above says one thing and the Summer Gods another…). And then what are we to make of widespread Braavosi acceptance for the Faceless Men and their ecumenical house of suicide and murder?
So, in terms of religion, Braavos doesn’t bare much similarity to Medieval and Renaissance Italy. To parallel Braavos, Renaissance Venice would have to be filled with Greek, Norse, Slavic, Celtic, Mesopotamian and even East Asian temples, with a large section of its population split between an urbanized Tengerism and a very militant Manichaeism, all while a very small but very active and notorious Thuggee cult operates with general license and approval. When it comes to Braavosi morals and social acceptability we’re very much in a pure fantasy world, where the standard historical parallels lose their power. Unfortunately, while the Martin has made pains to emphasize Braavos’ religious diversity, he hasn’t seen fit to really get into the content of said religions.
Fortunately, this question is somewhat moot, as we know quite a bit about the social activity of the courtesans and how they are perceived by the average Braavosi. We know that the courtesans are afforded a great deal of public deference (Arya is told to be polite to them). We know that they practice noblesse oblige (the Black Pearl pays more than Arya’s cockles are worth). We know that they set upper-class fashion trends by modeling dresses and jewels (the obvious reason jewelers shower them with gifts and craftsmen beg them for their custom). We know their movements and activities are by design extremely public (Arya often sees their barges floating by while selling her clams, oysters, and cockles — it would be impossible to keep a tryst secret while traveling in one of those). We know that singers regularly write songs about the beauty of the courtesans, that bourgeois men like being seen with them and visited by them, that theaters want them in their audience, that bravos often kill each other over which is more beautiful, and that bronze and marble statues commemorate the most famous. It’s very clear from all this that the courtesans receive a great deal of public respect, even homage, from all levels of society. They are not shown discretely selling sex to general disapproval, nor are they closely identified with some nobleman’s court or patronage network. This is why we think that they should be considered celebrities rather than prostitutes or courtiers.
We also know that the unique courtesans of Braavos have been around for a while. The second Black Pearl won her courtesanship in the last two decades of the second century AC and there were definitely courtesans before her (as the Black Pearl is never identified as the first of the courtesans, only the most storied). The courtesans should not therefore be viewed in isolation but considered in tandem with the rest of Braavosi history. Given the religious and ethnic diversity of early Braavos, there would have been a real need for non-sectarian symbols and traditions around which the whole city could unite as a single people. Over the centuries these symbols were artfully built and fashioned to commemorate the city’s humble past and celebrate its growing prosperity.
For foreigners, the most visible symbols of the city are the ubiquitous and far-sailing merchant ships with their purple sails, purple hulls and purple garbed captains, a deliberate harking back to the very first Braavosi merchant marine, stolen slave ships disguised with purple dye (no other country seems to make such a standardized show of ornamenting its civilian ships as does Braavos). Within Braavos itself the city’s power upon the oceans is the subject of many a monument. The foremost of these is the mighty, fearsome, and unconquerable yet welcoming Titan, the fortress lighthouse that protects the city even as it guides Braavosi ships home. Presiding over the Purple Harbor and its purple sails is the Sealord’s Palace and its enormous menagerie of exotic animals; curiosity testifying to the world-spanning success of the city’s trading fleets and the power of Braavos and its Sealord. The Braavosi merchant, fishing, and war fleets are further celebrated in the numerous fountains and pools that can found throughout the city (World Book 274).
More terrestrial monuments and symbols are similarly collective in nature. Representing the power and independence of the republic’s civil government is the rather Orwellian sounding Palace of Truth, a great green domed edifice that towers over every temple and all but the grandest of private mansions.** Twin to the Palace of Truth is the Iron Bank, an institution of equal importance that both maintains and symbolizes Braavosi predominance across the Narrow Sea’s financial markets. The bank’s name pays tribute to its humble beginnings, when twenty three Braavosi gathered together to lock their valuables in an abandoned iron mine, the city’s first and greatest corporate endeavor. So seminal is this institution that the descendants of the twenty-three original keyholders were able to establish themselves as the city’s new blue-blooded aristocracy. They treasure their aging iron keys in much the same way that Westerosi nobility treasure their Valyrian steel swords and chart their family’s lines of descent from the twenty-three as assiduously as Westerosi highlords trace their origins back to the Age of Heroes.*** Yet far more important than official symbols, monuments and family honors is the culture of everyday life, where one finds the inner spirit of the city.
While the city’s ships and monuments commemorate past beginnings and present day power, the holidays, entertainments and diversions of Braavos celebrate and reinforce a culture of deception, simulation and transformation.**** During the great masked revelry that is the Unveiling of Uthero the entire population symbolically reenacts over eleven days the founding of the city, its century of secrecy, and its eventual revelation to the world.***** On more ordinary evenings Braavosi of every class and description flock to the Blue Lantern, the Dome, the Gate, and the Ship to see the city’s unique brand of live theater. Within, they watch and listen as the mummers transform themselves into mythological, historical, fictional and still-living characters, an art practiced nowhere else. After dark, those with more martial inclinations can frequent the ritualized water dancing that takes place upon the Moon Pool. There swordsmen seek to convey through grace and darkness the illusion that they barely skim the pool’s surface as they battle one another. When the water dance is successfully performed the duelists actually appear to walk on water.
Not only do the courtesans fit right in, they are arguably greater than all the other civic symbols combined, synthesizing in their persons every aspect of Braavosi culture identified above. The courtesans are socially unifying; everyone in Braavos, regardless of class, ethnicity, politics or religion, enjoys discussing them. The courtesans “[are] famed across the world,” same as the Titan and the purple-sailed ships, and in this way speak to the importance of Braavos (FfC Cat of the Canals). Each courtesan has her own barge and in this way they pay homage to the city’s ultimate dependence upon the sea. Through their opulent couture the courtesans display their city’s ever growing prosperity. Most importantly, they are transformers. As Sophie Turner recently observed, fashion is inherently about personal transmutation:
Each courtesan in her rise from obscurity and poverty to fame and fortune acts out her city’s rise as it is celebrated in the Unveiling of Uthero. The courtesan dresses up and assumes the role of the Daughter of the Dusk or the Nightingale, and by this play profits; while the early Braavosi dyed their sails purple and pretended to be from somewhere that wasn’t Braavos, and through this deception profited immensely. Each courtesan is an actress playing a single role on a world stage. Each courtesan is an illusionist whose aura can even make lamps appear to glow brighter. The courtesans are not a mere detail of the city; they are the key to unlocking its nature.
Where we agree with Steven is that wellborn Braavosi women are very unlikely to become courtesans, and that most courtesans have their origins in the poor and working classes. This, however, is not because the courtesan lifestyle is considered morally shameful. If you told a wellborn Braavosi woman that she was as beautiful or poised as the Nightingale or the Merling Queen, she would definitely take that as a compliment (taking offense would be odd given that she emulates them in dress). Rather, the aversion of the wellborn would have to do with how the courtesan industry can be a really awful and unfulfilling experience for those young girls striving to attain, or maintain, celebrity status. Even for the most successful and accomplished courtesans, courtesanship is extremely demanding work. A courtesan must to stay in character whenever she is in public, negotiate endlessly with craftsmen, patronize singers, train and recruit lesser courtesans, sell her company and body to wealthy men, and show herself constantly, all while the days are counting down until she is too old to continue. Why would beautiful rich girls subject themselves to this when they can already enjoy the most glamorous aspects of the courtesanship: the jewels and the clothes? Rich women need merely take their fashion cues from the Black Pearl, Nightingale, Moonshadow or Daughter of the Dusk, and patronize the jewelers, dress makers, cobblers and hair stylists whose creations are being modeled by them. In this way, bourgeois women may simulate some of the courtesan’s glamour while doing none of the truly exacting work. Poor women on the other hand have no way of attaining the glamour of courtesanship short of becoming rich or briefly becoming a courtesan.
We know this response was a long time in coming, but better late than never.
*The Jogos Nhai’s cross dressing, where a man can become a woman and a woman a man by taking on their opposite’s appearance and social life, might be yet another source of the Braavosi love for self-conscious transformation, role playing and masquerade.
**Is Palace of Truth’s name supposed to be serious, or was it meant to be ironic? Or is it a boast that the Braavosi can perceive the truth, even in politics? As this is where the Sealord is chosen, perhaps it refers to the ideal of selecting the man who is truly the best candidate for the job? Who knows with this city…
***This is not dissimilar from New Englanders who trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation.
****The Braavosi’s ships and monuments say: “Look at us! Look how far we’ve come! Look how powerful and wealthy we are now!” But the Braavosi’s ships, holidays and amusements then remind them: “You are a city of actors, liars, illusionists and sneaks. When your ancestors arrived here they were slaves and they escaped recapture by hiding in the fog and disguising themselves as different peoples whenever they ventured outside. That is how you came to have everything you have now.”
***** Braavos was unveiled by Sealord Uthero on its 111th anniversary, which roughly translates to one festival day per decade. It should not be forgotten that Braavos initiated several years of secret negotiations with the Valyrians before officially ending its secrecy.
First day: foundation of the secret city (the event that the original celebration commemorated). Second through tenth days: the time of secrecy. Midnight (start of the eleventh day): the decade of the unveiling.