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This article is written from an out-of-universe perspective.
Ygritte: "Is that how you lot do your fighting? You march down the road banging drums and waving banners?"
Jon Snow: "Most of the time, yes."
Ygritte: "How do the men holding the banners fight?"
Jon Snow: "They don't, really. It's a great honor to carry your House sigil."
Jon Snow explains to Ygritte the wildling the importance of heraldry in the Seven Kingdoms.[src]

The various noble Houses of the Seven Kingdoms use distinctive heraldry, to identify their armies on the battlefield and as a sign of status for individuals.

Heraldic designs may consist of a simple pattern of colors, but also usually feature real or mythological animals or objects. Specific sets of formal rules govern what form a heraldic design may take.

Only members of noble families, or their bannermen, have the legal right to formally display their own heraldry.

The heraldry of each noble House is also accompanied by a specific House motto, or "words". These typically take the form of boasts or battle-cries, such as House Baratheon's words "Ours is the fury!", or House Tully's words "Family, Duty, Honor". House Stark is a major exception in that unlike most other Houses, its words are not a boast but the ominous warning "Winter is coming".

Heraldry in Westeros and in the real-world

In the real-life Middle Ages, a specific set of rules governed heraldry designs.

The colors used in heraldry are formally known as "tinctures", though these are subdivided into regular "colors", "metals", and "furs". Red, Green, Blue, Purple, and Black are considered "colors". Certain other colors (i.e. Brown) were added in later centuries as new dyes became available to Medieval Europe. The two "metals" are Gold and Silver, though both of these actually encompass a spectrum of colors: gold to orange to yellow is all considered "gold", while white to grey is collectively considered "silver". A few fur patterns were also used, such as "Ermine" and "Vair". Ermine is supposed to look like the tail pattern of a stoat, and Vair is supposed to resemble the belly coloration of kind of squirrel. Furs such as Ermine are technically patterns, not single "colors", but are arbitrarily lumped in with colors and metals as "tinctures". Each tincture officially consists of a specific shade of a given color and no other: there is only one shade of "blue" which cane be used, with no variation between different shades of "light blue" and "dark blue".

The most important rule of heraldry is the rule of tincture:

Metal shall never be put on metal, nor color on color.

It is against the rules of heraldry to for a design to be half red and half blue, or for it to be half gold and half silver. For example, the sigil of House Lannister is a gold lion (metal) on a red field (color). It would not be permitted to have a gold lion on a silver background, because it is also a metal. Ostensibly this is because heraldry is supposed to identify different armies on the battlefield and should be easily distinguishable at a glance.

There is a major loophole to this rule, however, in the choice of color for the animal or object (the sigil) used in a heraldic design. An object may be depicted as "proper" - using the color is possesses in nature - regardless of what other colors it is touching. This explicitly allows the animal or object featured in a heraldic design to break the rule of tincture. For example, the sigil of House Stark is a grey direwolf on a snow-white field, which breaks the "no metal against metal" rule. However, direwolves are actually grey in nature, so it is simply being displayed "proper" - the rule of tincture does not apply, and it can be used on a white field. In contrast, it would still break the rules of heraldry to put a purple direwolf on a blue background, because direwolves are never purple in nature, and a purple direwolf cannot plausibly be said to be displayed "proper".

A problem presented in both the A Song of Ice and Fire novels and HBO's TV adaptation Game of Thrones is that a specific set of terminology is officially used in heraldry, describing the different tinctures as well as design motifs - and this terminology only exists in the French language. The official names for the various tinctures are: Gules (Red), Vert (Green), Azure (Blue), Purpure (Purple), Sable (Black), Or (Gold), Argent (Silver).

French does not exist in the fictional world of Westeros and Essos, however, so it may be impossible to use the real-life formal terminology of heraldry in this context. For example, no one within the narrative is ever going to say to Tywin Lannister that the sigil of his House is "gules, a lion or".

Different shapes may be fitted into various shapes on flags or armor, but because they were originally painted onto shields, the official shape of an overall piece of heraldry is usually the shape of a shield (an escutcheon). This is the practice throughout most of the Seven Kingdoms, with the major exception of Dorne. Military tactics in the deserts of Dorne favor quick hit-and-run attacks, as opposed to columns of slow and bulky armored knights, who would soon suffer from lack of available water sources. Thus instead of using the full shields of heavy knights, the Dornish favor lightly armored and mobile riders who fight with spears and small rounded shields. This is reflected in the heraldry of Houses from Dorne, which are officially in the shape of a perfect circle, not an escutcheon.

Younger sons, variations, and personal sigils

Younger sons of noble Houses often prefer to use their own distinctive personal sigils, which are often a slight variation of the official sigil of their House. Sometimes even the oldest son and heir, or even the current lord, may have his own personal sigil - this is simply a matter of preference.

For example, while the official heraldry of House Tully is a silver fish on a red and blue background, Brynden "The Blackfish" Tully uses a variant of this for his personal heraldry, which consists of a black fish on a red and blue background.

Bastards

Acknowledged bastard children of a noble family are still not legally permitted to officially carry the heraldry of their noble parent's House. They may unofficially carry a flag displaying the heraldry on the battlefield or use weapons and equipment that display its heraldic symbol - but only as much as any common footsoldier in their noble parent's army may also carry such equipment. If an acknowledged noble-born bastard began openly wearing capes and armor displaying the heraldry of his noble parent's House, and using banners displaying the heraldry at formal social functions, he would face legal troubles and punishment.

House-Targaryen-heraldry

House Targaryen's sigil is a red dragon on a black field.

File:House Blackfyre sigil.png

For example, Jon Snow (before he joined the Night's Watch and forsook all family ties) was forbidden from officially "carrying" and displaying the Stark heraldry of a grey direwolf on a white field. One of House Stark's bannermen such as Ser Rodrik Cassel might physically hold a flag displaying the Stark heraldry, or even a common Stark footman might carry such a flag, and thus Jon may have carried weapons or equipment featuring the Stark direwolf design motif, but Jon was not allowed to use the Stark heraldry as a representation of himself, because this would be essentially making the false claim that he was a legitimized child who no longer bore the shame of his bastardy.

Noble-born bastards are in a legal state between fullborn nobles and simple commoners, however, and unlike the common smallfolk, acknowledged bastards are allowed to use their own heraldry - just not the heraldry of their noble parent's House. A custom very common in Westeros is for bastards to use the heraldry of their noble-born parent's House but with the colors inverted (which is known as "breaking" the design scheme). While the books and TV series never portrayed Jon Snow as using any kind of heraldry before he joined the Night's Watch, if he followed this custom his personal sigil would have been a white direwolf on a grey field, the reverse of the Stark colors. Thus the discovery of the six direwolf pups by Ned Stark and his sons is all the more considered a sign from the Old Gods: not only were there two female and four male pups (to match the Stark children), but the sixth was an albino - physically resembling the white direwolf design that Jon would use in heraldry as a bastard son.

One of the more infamous examples of bastard heraldry is House Blackfyre, a cadet branch of House Targaryen founded by bastard son Daemon Blackfyre when he was legitimized, over a century before the War of the Five Kings. Following the custom for bastards, Daemon inverted the color scheme of the Targaryen heraldry, so instead of the normal red three-headed dragon on a black background, House Blackfyre's heraldry consisted of a black three-headed dragon on a red background.

Exceptions: the Night's Watch and the Kingsguard

Jon and Benjen 1x03

The Night's Watch "uniform" is solid black: signifying the absence of heraldry.

The Night's Watch has no heraldic symbol, to emphasize its sworn duty to be removed from petty politics of one lordly House or another, but to defend the lands of men as a whole. Thus, the Night's Watch uses solid black on its banner and shields, which symbolize the erasure of any allegiance to noble Houses. Even the "uniform" of the Night's Watch is to wear solid black clothing; members from wealthier families often buy all-black clothing before leaving for the Wall, while poor conscripts have their clothing simply dyed black when they reach the Wall (clothing which isn't always well-suited for cold weather). Thus when new recruits join the Night's Watch, they are often said to "take the black", to take up the black uniform.

Night's Watch vows

Those who take the Watch's vows reject all heraldry.

Solid black specifically denotes the rejection of heraldry, and is therefore strictly speaking not a "symbol" in and of itself, but the absence of a symbol. Even the seals on messages sent by the Night's Watch are simply made in black wax with no symbol on them. The wildlings have taken to calling members of the Night's Watch "crows" because like crows they are covered in black, but this is just a nickname - though it has also caught on a bit south of the Wall as well, as travelling Night's Watch recruiters such as Yoren are often called "wandering crows".

The Night's Watch-related articles on the Game of Thrones Wiki make use of the black raven icon used for the Night's Watch and associated characters on the HBO Viewer's Guide, but this is only because it became too confusing to use a solid black navigation icon in different articles. The black crow icon from the HBO website is non-canonical and never actually used within the story.
Kingsguard 1

The Kingsguard are famous for their white cloaks and armor.

Members of the elite Kingsguard are noted for their all-white cloaks, and white enameled armor. The Kingsguard officially has no symbol, and display only a pure white banner for their heraldry, the opposite of how a knight with no allegiance will use solid black heraldry. Indeed, only members of the Kingsguard legally have the right to carry shields and banners emblazoned with all-white heraldry.

Somewhat like the Night's Watch they formally renounce their familial and political allegiances when they join the order. Unlike the Night's Watch, the all-white banners of the Kingsguard are technically not considered to be a rejection or absence of heraldry, the way black is.

The only marking of any kind that the Kingsguard display in the TV series is the crown of the King of the Andals and the First Men, displayed on their armor.

Similar to the Night's Watch, Kingsguard-related articles on the Game of Thrones Wiki make use of either their distinctive helmet or the King's crown design from their armor, but this is only because it became too confusing to use a solid white navigation icon in different articles. Officially, the heraldry of the Kingsguard is just a solid white banner.

The North

Heraldry is closely associated with knighthood, which was introduced to Westeros by the Andals six thousand years ago. Northern warriors are not as flashy as southern knights, fighting over frivolous love feuds, but have to be dour and grim to survive the harsh winters which affect the North. Some of the heraldry from southern Westeros can be very ornate, which the Northerners see as frivolous. As a result, heraldry in the North is intentionally not as complex as heraldry from the south of Westeros.

The Vale of Arryn

The Riverlands

The Westerlands

The Crownlands

The Iron Islands

The Stormlands

The Reach

Dorne

Beyond the Seven Kingdoms

Other regions of the Known World might not have the same rules and standards of heraldry as are used in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Even so, many groups in Essos use various heraldic designs to distinguish themselves. Sometimes these may be political entities, but it is most common in Essos to see heraldry used by independent mercenary companies, using distinct symbols on their banners in order to serve the original purpose of heraldry: so soldiers and captains can distinguish the movement of different forces on the battlefield.

The old Ghiscari Empire used Harpies as its symbol, until it was defeated by the Valyrian Freehold five thousand years ago. After the Doom of Valyria four hundred years before the War of the Five Kings, local city-states and former colonies of the region reasserted their independence, and became known as Slaver's Bay. The three major city-states of Slaver's Bay - Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen - like to think of themselves as continuations of the former glories of Old Ghis, so they also use harpies as their symbols, though each uses a slight variant. The Astapori harpy holds a chain with open manacles, the Yunkish harpy holds a whip and an iron collar, while the Meereenese harpy holds nothing.

So far (in both the books and TV series) no specific heraldry has been mentioned for any of the nine Free Cities (though Braavos mints its currency with a symbol of the Titan of Braavos, a famous landmark from the city). Individual noble families or wealthy ruling merchant families from the Free Cities do sometimes use their own heraldic devices but even in the books they have not been prominently mentioned. If anything, at one point in the books Illyrio Mopatis of Pentos remarks that he thinks the Westerosi take their heraldry much too seriously (i.e. Tywin Lannister's constant speeches about how "the lion does not concern himself with the opinions of sheep!") - so apparently, heraldry is simply not as important or developed in the Free Cities as it is in Westeros.

The Dothraki are an illiterate society but also do not use any particular banners or symbols. Dothraki khalasars sometimes differentiate themselves by decorating themselves and their horses with different colors of paint. For example, Khal Drogo's khalasar used blue paint, but Khal Jhaqo's khalasar uses red paint.[1] However, individual khalasars have no names, nor particularly long-lasting or deep histories and affiliations, because they frequently dissolve on the death of their khal, or get conquered and absorbed by other khalasars. Thus the Dothraki don't make use of long-standing symbols or paint-schemes.

As for the lands Beyond the Wall in Westeros, Ygritte specifically says that the Free Folk do not use heraldry, or wave banners around which make their forces easy to spot on a conventional battlefield. Instead, they prefer attack by ambush.

Image Gallery

Behind the scenes

Jim Stanes heraldry

Jim Stanes in his workshop. Note the heraldry chart in the background.

Heraldry behind the scenes 1

Stanes' early heraldry concept art. Note that some, such as the Umber and Royce sigils, do not match their final, on-screen versions.

While the heraldry designs used by each noble House were established by author George R.R. Martin in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, graphic artist Jim Stanes was tasked with taking Martin's textual descriptions and adapting them into the visual format of the TV series. Stanes achieved this after laborious effort, and comparisons with literally hundreds of examples from real-life medieval heraldry.

Stanes described the process of physically making the heraldic banners:

"We basically sent digital files of the artwork to printers, with specific instructions about how big they are, color matching, we put a color system here, which the printer also has. So we print up banners, flags, tent materials, all sorts of things like that."[2]

He went on to explain that the sigils that appear on shields or armor are directly painted on, or applied by the production team. A few of the major Houses get their own molded shields, i.e. the Stark direwolf which appears on their shields is not simply painted on but a more detailed molding. Some of the major Houses also get their own custom armor which features their sigils as part of the design, i.e. the Lannister lions worked into Tywin Lannister's armor.

Stanes explained that the heraldry for the Great Houses were the first ones to be fully developed for Season 1, as well as for a few of the other major Houses which appear prominently in Season 1 (i.e. House Umber).

Heraldry behind the scenes 2

Concept art of the Lannister lion sigil.

Heraldry behind the scenes 3

Concept art of the Stark direwolf sigil.

Stanes described the process of creating the heraldry for some of the Great Houses:

"The Lannister lion, we went through hundreds and hundreds of versions. We looked at references from the ancient past, the Middle Ages, we looked at 20th century logos, all sorts of different ideas on how a lion could look."[3]
"The Stark sigil took a long time to develop. The direwolf is a big symbol in the [TV series], so we needed to establish something that really felt right."[4]
"Greyjoy, they're the kraken. I didn't even known what a kraken was: it's a giant squid, basically, that what's everybody says it is, so we did a big squid."[5]

In the books

The heraldry designs of certain noble Houses are depicted differently between the books and TV series.

Sometimes these are slight variations on the field, often adding an escutcheon on the bottom of large banners, though these additions are not seen in all versions. For example, House Stark's heraldry in the books only consists of a grey direwolf on a snow white field. In the TV series, large banners sometimes depict this surmounting a green escutcheon, introducing a new color that wasn't in the original heraldry. Some of the original House Baratheon banners (i.e. at the tournament in Season 1) use a black escutcheon on the bottom of large banners, but this is simply a re-use of colors already in the heraldry (from the black stag).

On a few occasions the heraldry of a noble House has been drastically altered in the TV series, possibly to make it more easily visible. The greatest example are the changes made to the heraldry of House Frey. In the books, House Frey's heraldry consists of the two towers and bridge of the Twins colored blue, on a silver-grey background. The TV series made the towers white, and over the same grey field, but now above a blue escutcheon which is drawn to resemble the waves of the Green Fork of the Trident River. The color change may be because after the blue river was added as an escutcheon at the bottom, it would have been visually confusing to have the castle be the same color as the water. Unfortunately, reversing the colors like this makes it vaguely resemble the reversed colors used in heraldry by bastard children (though in such cases, without the escutcheon, the entire background field is blue, not just the escutcheon).

The heraldry of House Tully, which is fairly important as it is one of the Great Houses, was significantly re-arranged in the adaptation. In the TV series, it is striped horizontally, with two wavy white lines separating a red top section (which contains a white fish) and a blue bottom section (the small space between the two white stripes is also blue). In the books, the stripes run vertically, and there are no white stripes. Rather, the heraldry starts as blue, but then two wavy muddy-red vertical stripes run through the blue, making for a total of five stripes - each of equal width - alternating blue/red/blue/red/blue. The white fish is set in the middle of this, and crosses through multiple stripes. Because the TV series just has two large red and blue sections, instead of five stripes of equal width, the fish in the TV series is entirely contained within the top red section.

In the books, the sigil of House Umber is a roaring giant in chains, but the TV series changed this to simply four linked chains connected by a central ring. It is possible there were concerns that the TV audience might not understand it was meant to be a giant and not just an odd-looking man. Earlier concept art by Jim Stanes (seen in production blogs) reveals that the TV version of the Umber sigil went through several versions, and an earlier version did contain a giant's arm (with its body out of frame) grasping the chains.

The heraldry of House Mallister in the books is a silver eagle on a purple field, but in the TV series the field is blue.

House Redwyne's heraldry in the books is a burgundy grape cluster on a blue field, but the TV series changed this to a burgundy grape cluster on a white field, probably because burgundy on blue is more difficult to readily distinguish.

Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish prefers to use his personal mockingbird sigil, but as he is the only living member of House Baelish he has functionally replaced the old version (which featured the head of the Titan of Braavos) with his own. The mockingbird heraldry has not appeared prominently in heraldry on the TV series so far (though Petyr does prominently wear a mockingbird-shaped broach, it doesn't feature colors). The one time it has appeared was on a ship's sail in Season 3, in which it seemed to be a black mockingbird on a yellow field. In the books, the sigil actually consists of a field of multiple silver mockingbirds, on a green plain.

References

See also

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