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- "Singers call those times the Age of Heroes. A mask for a savage world that bred savage men."
- ―Lord Roose Bolton
The Age of Heroes is an epoch in the history of Westeros. It began approximately 10,000 years ago with the sealing of the Pact, which brought about peace between the First Men and the Children of the Forest at the end of the preceding era, known as the Dawn Age. The Age of Heroes lasted for about four millennia, from the signing of the Pact until the Andal Invasion 6,000 years ago.
This age is so-named for the great heroes who were said to live at this time and perform immense deeds. Some of these heroes include Bran the Builder and Lann the Clever, whose descendants founded House Stark and House Lannister respectively.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the Age of Heroes is one of several broad eras in the history of Westeros. It was preceded by the Dawn Age, in which the First Men crossed the land bridge into Westeros, encountered the Children of the Forest, and came into conflict with them. After many centuries of warfare, the two races met on the Isle of Faces and established the Pact, which created peace between them. The Age of Heroes is commonly accepted to date from that accord, and lasted for thousands of years after it.
During this period, many petty-kingdoms rose and fell across the continent, their rulers laying the foundations for what would later become the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. A number of cultural traditions were also established during this time, many of which live on in the customs of the present-day Northmen: the laws of hospitality, guest right, and the notion that "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" all date from the Age of Heroes.
The most notable event that took place during the Age of Heroes was the Long Night, the generation-long winter that descended upon Westeros and brought the First Men and the Children of the Forest in conflict with the White Walkers. The following war claimed many lives, and the Children never truly recovered from it, but the Walkers were driven back to the far north, and the Wall was raised to bar against their potential return.
Westeros was very different during the Age of Heroes, compared to during the War of the Five Kings some ten to six thousand years later. The Andals later migrated to Westeros, bringing with them many more familiar cultural traditions and technologies, which were absent during the Age of Heroes.
- The Faith of the Seven is specifically an Andal religion, and was not present in Westeros during the Age of Heroes.
- Similarly, the tradition of Knighthood is specific to the Andals, so there were no "knights" as such during this time period. Later histories written after the Andal Invasion inaccurately apply the title "knight" to several legendary figures from this era.
- The Age of Heroes was essentially the Bronze Age of Westeros, comparable in technological level to Bronze Age Britain. Their weapons and armor were bronze, as stronger iron and steel weapons were only introduced later by the Andals.
- The "kings" from the Age of Heroes may not have really been "kings" in the sense of the word familiar to the present-day. Obviously, they were not nearly as powerful, as each of the later "Seven Kingdoms" was a patchwork of about a dozen or so petty kingdoms. Moreover, some maesters theorize that "kings" in the Age of Heroes were more of a "first among equals", a war-band leader who rallied the other noble Houses in times of external threat, not really comparable to the absolute monarchies of later eras. Even in more recent centuries, such as by the time of the Andal invasions 6,000 years ago, the Starks still called themselves "King of Winter", a more local title, as their hold on the North at the time was more of a loose hegemony. Centuries afterwards, as their hold on the North tightened, the Starks shifted to calling themselves "King in the North" to emphasize their sovereign status over the entire region.
- The Andals also possessed better architectural technology, and constructed many of the larger castles in Westeros. Fortifications during the Age of Heroes were primarily basic ring-forts, in the style of the Fist of the First Men. A few castle sites have been continuously inhabited and improved upon over the millennia, particularly Winterfell, Storm's End, Casterly Rock, Pyke, Oldtown, and Highgarden, but during the Age of Heroes itself they were much smaller and humble. Some of them may have been little more than ringforts at the time. Moat Cailin, strategically located at a vital choke point in the swamps of The Neck], has allegedly existed since the wars between the First Men and the Children of the Forest.
- Several major locations from the time of the War of the Five Kings definitely didn't exist: King's Landing was just three barren hills in the middle of an empty field at the mouth of the Blackwater River. It was only built by the Targaryens 300 years ago after they conquered and unified the Seven Kingdoms. Similarly, the Targaryens' ancestral fortress on Dragonstone didn't exist yet either, as it was only settled about 500 years ago. Harrenhal was only constructed a generation before the Targaryen Conquest. The Freys only built The Twins and became a noble House about 600 years before the present (300 years before the Conquest). The Eyrie and Riverrun were specifically built only after the Andal invasions. Moreover, none of the major highways existed yet which the Targaryens built to ease travel and trade across their new unified realm, such as the Kingsroad.
- Westeros has five settlements large enough to be called "cities" in the present-day: in descending order of size these are King's Landing, Oldtown, Lannisport, Gulltown in the Vale, and White Harbor in the North. Even by the end of the Age of Heroes, when the Andals first invaded, only Oldtown and Lannisport were large enough to be called "cities": King's Landing didn't exist at all, and White Harbor was just a coastal fortification called the Wolf's Den, while Gulltown was a reasonably sized and prosperous port town. When Oldtown and Lannisport grew into "cities" is also unclear: Lannisport was founded many centuries after Lann the Clever died, by younger branches of the Lannister family from Casterly Rock.
- As for surrounding lands, it isn't clear how much long-distance trade contact the First Men had with them. The First Men were not noted for having a strong presence at sea, with their own merchant fleets sailing to distant lands.
- The Valyrian Freehold only first rose about 5,000 years ago, when the humble shepherds of Valyria discovered and tamed dragons, then used them to conquer the rest of Essos.
- The Valyrians later settled colonies to their west which became the Free Cities, none of which existed yet during the Age of Heroes either. During this time period, the western end of Essos where the Free Cities were later located was divided between the Andals (to the north) and the Rhoynar (to the south, along the river network).
- The Dothraki hadn't even settled in the Dothraki Sea yet, as they only migrated west of the Bone Mountains thousands of years later (accounts differ).
- After the Long Night, merchant ships from the Summer Islands began exploring the surrounding oceans, and it is said that they were visiting Oldtown since it was first settled (some even theorize that Oldtown began as a resupply post for Summer Islander ships).
- The civilizations of the Ghiscari Empire (founders of Slaver's Bay), Qarth, and Yi Ti did exist around the time of the Long Night, but they were in their infancy. The shadow-binders of Asshai, meanwhile, claim that their dark city has existed since the beginning of time, and none can prove otherwise.
- At the time leading up to the Long Night, of course, the Wall and the Night's Watch didn't exist yet.
- The Order of Maesters was present during this time period - at least in some form. It originated as a guild of scholars in Oldtown, during the time of the First Men and before the Andals. Not much is remembered about its origins beyond legends, however, and it probably wasn't as fully developed as an organization compared to the present. It only developed gradually from a loose guild of court scholars into a university-like organization, and only later developed the continent-spanning messenger-raven network.
The Age of Heroes takes its name from the many legendary figures that lived during this time. Each of these figures performed great feats that are still talked about in the present-day, and many of the noble houses of Westeros claim descent from them:
- Bran the Builder: said to be the mastermind behind the Wall and to have raised the ancient keep of Winterfell. Allegedly, he built The Wall with the aid of the Children of the Forest and their magical powers. His name is also connected with other notable constructs, such as Storm's End and the Hightower. House Stark claims descent from him.
- Durran Godsgrief: Durran is credited with raising the mighty castle of Storm's End as a defense against the powerful winds and rains that blow up and down the coast of the Stormlands. House Durrandon, the rulers of the Stormlands before the Targaryen Conquest, claimed descent from him. In turn, House Baratheon claims descent from Durran, as Orys Baratheon married the daughter of the last Storm King after the Targaryen Conquest. According to some legends, Durran was actually helped by a young Bran the Builder, before Bran went north to create Winterfell and found House Stark. Of course, many maesters doubt either of them ever existed, and even among those who do believe they were historical figures (albeit embellished by later legends), many suspect that the part about Durran knowing Bran the Builder was just an invention of later storytellers.
- Lann the Clever: a famous, golden-haired trickster who was able to swindle House Casterly out of their ancestral stronghold, Casterly Rock, though the stories of how he accomplished this feat vary widely. The stories also say that he lived for over 300 years and sired a hundred children. House Lannister claims descent from him.
- The Grey King: the first ruler of the ironborn, he slew the great sea dragon Nagga, took a mermaid as his wife and ruled for a thousand years. He also taught men how to weave nets and sails, and carved the very first longship from the wood of a demon tree. Nearly all the noble houses of the Iron Islands claim descent from him.
- Garth Greenhand: stories told of Garth say that he first taught men how to farm the land, was able to influence human fertility and reproductive cycles, and that he sired children beyond count. All the noble houses of the Reach claim descent from him in some form.
- House Gardener claimed to be the descendants of Garth's eldest children. Eventually they unified all of the Reach under their rule, for thousands of years, but were completely wiped out during the Targaryen Conquest. House Tyrell does not claim direct male descent from the Gardeners, as they were an Andal family that came to the Reach centuries later - but the Tyrells did intermarry with local First Men families over the centuries, so that they claim descent from the Gardeners through the female line, and thus in turn from Garth Greenhand.
- Florys the Fox: A daughter of Garth Greenhand who was so cunning that she was able to keep three husbands at once, with none knowing of the others' existence. House Florent of Brightwater Keep claims descent from one of the husbands.
- Gilbert of the Vines: According to legend, it was Gilbert who first taught the men of the Arbor to make wine from the grapes that grew on the island. House Redwyne claims descent from him.
- Harlon the Hunter and Herndon of the Horn: Twin sons of Garth Greenhand. They are said to have raised the castle of Horn Hill and shared a woods witch as a wife for a hundred years, never aging as long as they bedded her every full moon. House Tarly claims descent from them.
- The Winged Knight: also known as the Falcon Knight, the ancient ruler of the Vale who warred with giants, rode a giant falcon, and commanded armies of birds, among other exploits. Later histories conflated him with Artys Arryn, an Andal adventurer who conquered the Vale thousands of years later. Maesters know they cannot possibly be the same person, because House Arryn wasn't even living in Westeros at the time. For that matter, there were no "knights" in the Vale during the Age of Heroes, because Knighthood is specifically an Andal tradition that they introduced to Westeros in later ages. Compare with how legends about King Arthur in Britain started out as one set of Welsh legends, but were then combined with various other legends about English and French knights over the centuries, with multiple and often conflicting versions of the narrative. Nonetheless, many legends and songs still refer to the Winged Knight as "Artys Arryn".
The Riverlands, The Crownlands, and Dorne do not have legendary founders on the scale of a Bran the Builder or Lann the Clever. Of course, every local noble House has legends about its ancestors, but these are small scale legends and not nearly as prominent across entire geographical regions. The Riverlands rarely existed as a unified kingdom so it has no unified founder myth, and the Crownlands didn't even exist until the Targaryen Conquest (during the Age of Heroes those lands were just an extension of the Riverlands). Dorne was very different during the Age of Heroes, as the Rhoynar had not migrated there yet. Dorne was divided up into petty kingdoms for most of its history and only unified about one thousand years ago when the Rhoynar under Nymeria came from Essos, conquering and unifying it.
While the Age of Heroes occupies a significant place in the collective culture and history of Westeros, very little about this period can, in fact, be confirmed with any accuracy. As Samwell Tarly points out to Jon Snow, Westeros did not possess a comprehensive written language until the arrival of the Andals. The First Men did possess a system of runic script (as seen on the sigil of House Royce), and surviving examples of this script can sometimes corroborate parts of stories from the Age of Heroes. For the most part, however, these stories were passed down orally through songs and poems, which can easily change depending on circumstances, especially over a long period of time. Therefore, nearly all the information known about the Age of Heroes was written down thousands of years after the events supposedly occurred, and many of those writers were septons whose accounts were likely influenced by their religious beliefs.
In such circumstances, the existence the legendary progenitors of various noble houses, or the occurrence of cataclysmic events such as the Long Night, cannot be conclusively proven, despite the importance they hold in the collective psyche of Westeros. By the same token, this lack of first-hand evidence (or simply the many thousands of years that have passed since) is one reason why some Westerosi believe the Long Night never occurred in the first place.
The legendary figures from the Age of Heroes share many of their traits with real-life culture heroes. Appearing in mythologies and histories from around the world, these archetypal figures - such as the Greek Prometheus, the West African Ananse, and the Polynesian Maui - usually contribute highly important technologies or traditions to a particular group, often very early in that group's history. Everything from agricultural techniques to the invention of language and writing have been attributed to culture heroes.