Incest is the act of engaging in sexual intercourse with one's direct family member (siblings, parents, offspring). It is a great cultural taboo both in the Seven Kingdoms and the lands beyond the Wall.
Intermarriage between first cousins is actually not considered "incest" in Westerosi society. A prominent example is that Tywin Lannister married his own first cousin Joanna Lannister, mother of all three of his children.
Known instances of incest
- The members of House Targaryen, like their ancestors of the Valyrian Freehold, often married brother to sister to keep their bloodline pure. However, generations of such heavy inbreeding increasingly produced insanity in some of them. After three centuries of this, varying forms of insanity became so common in the family that it was said that every time a new Targaryen was born, the Gods would flip a coin to determine if he or she would grow to be insane. This caused the Targaryens some problems with the Faith of the Seven, which proscribes incest, directly leading to the Faith Militant uprising against Aegon the Conqueror's sons, Aenys and Maegor. Due to the power of the royal family, however, the Faith was defeated, and forced to turn a blind eye towards their incestuous marriages.
- In the current generation, King Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King, married his own sister, Queen Rhaella Targaryen. Their three children, Rhaegar, Viserys, and Daenerys, are thus all the products of incest (and thus not only siblings but first cousins to each other). This heavy inbreeding made King Aerys fall into insanity as he grew older, and Viserys was showing signs of being quite unstable as well. Rhaegar and Daenerys apparently avoided any ill-effects from their incestuous bloodlines, however the Targaryen madness has been known to appear later in life.
- Although Rhaegar's wife Elia Martell wasn't a direct family member, she was a distant cousin of the Targaryen line due to her ancestor Prince Maron Martell marrying the sister of King Daeron II Targaryen (Rhaegar's great-great-grandfather) who had likewise married Maron's sister, making Rhaegar a distant cousin to House Martell. When the Targaryens had no sisters to marry, they would often at least try to marry cousins to keep the bloodline as "pure" as possible.
- Jon Snow, Rhaegar's last living son by Lyanna Stark, who shared no blood with Rhaegar as far as anyone knows, has so far not exhibited any signs of mental instability. However, this does not necessarily rule out the possibility that he could as there have been other less inbred Targaryens like him who still succumbed to madness, specifically his distant uncles Rhaegel and Aerion.
- Queen Cersei and her twin brother Ser Jaime Lannister have continued an illicit romance since childhood. Cersei's children: Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen, are all born of their affair. Similar to the Targaryens, this incestuous bloodline has apparently produced severe mental health defects in Joffrey. While he did not hear voices or see hallucinations of things that aren't real, Joffrey was a sadistic, cruel, and short-tempered sociopath. Cersei and her younger brother Tyrion explicitly discuss how the Targaryens experienced similar mental and behavioral problems after generations of incestuous inbreeding. Myrcella and Tommen, however, beat the odds and possess no (biological) mental health problems.
- Tywin Lannister married his own first cousin Joanna Lannister, though this is not considered "incest" in Westerosi culture. This does make their children Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion not only siblings, but second cousins to each other. Technically, this also makes Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen not only siblings and first cousins, but third cousins as well.
- The wildling Craster takes his daughters as wives and does the same on the daughters he sires on them, such as Gilly.
- Theon Greyjoy, albeit unknowingly, attempts to seduce his own sister Yara before recognizing her, and begins touching her as they ride for Pyke. She knew, but let him do it so she could later reveal her identity and humiliate him about it.
- Cersei Lannister: "My brother is worth a thousand of your friend."
- Eddard Stark: "Your brother...or your lover?"
- Cersei Lannister: "The Targaryens wed brothers and sisters for three hundred years to keep bloodlines pure. Jaime and I are more than brother and sister, we shared a womb, came into this world together, we belong together."
- — Cersei Lannister to Ned Stark[src]
- "And I declare upon the honor of my House that my brother Robert left no trueborn heirs. The boy Joffrey, the boy Tommen, and the girl Myrcella being born of incest between Cersei Lannister and her brother Ser Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer. By right of birth and blood, I do this day lay claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros. Let all true men declare their loyalty."
- ―Stannis Baratheon's letter to the lords of the Seven Kingdoms.
- "When boys and girls live in the same home, awkward situations can arise. Sometimes, I've heard, even brothers and sisters develop certain affections. And when those affections become common knowledge, well that is an awkward situation indeed, especially in a prominent family."
- ―Petyr Baelish taunting Cersei about her incest.
- Cersei Lannister: "Sometimes I wonder...if this is the price, for what we've done. For our sins."
- Tyrion Lannister: "Sins? The Targaryens..."
- Cersei Lannister: "Wed brother and sister for hundreds of years, I know. It's what Jaime and I would say to each other in our moments of doubt. It's what I told Ned Stark when he was stupid enough to confront me. Half the Targaryens went mad, didn't they? What's the saying? Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin?"
- — Cersei admitting that her son Joffrey Baratheon's incestuous parentage may have affected his sanity.[src]
- Cersei Lannister: "Our daughter's in danger, and you're worried I'm speaking too loudly?!"
- Jaime Lannister: "The world can't know she's our daughter."
- Cersei Lannister: "Then don't call her your daughter! You've never been a father to her."
- Jaime Lannister: "If I was a father to any of my children, they'd be stoned in the streets."
- — Jaime Lannister reminds his sister of the consequences if the world knew the truth about their children.[src]
- "I'm a Lannister, suck me off!"
- ―An unnamed man exposes himself to Cersei and makes a jape at her incest.
In the books
Incest in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the Targaryens continued to incestuously marry brother to sister "to keep the bloodlines pure" as had their ancestors in the Valyrian Freehold. For a time, at least, they also continued to practice polygamous marriages. Aegon I Targaryen ran into some opposition after the War of Conquest because of this, as he was married to both of his sisters, Visenya and Rhaenys (no subsequent Targaryen king is mentioned to have continued practicing polygamous marriage). Aegon I was a strong ruler, but after he finally died and was succeeded by his son Aenys, the Faith of the Seven rose up in rebellion against such abomination, using their military orders known as the Faith Militant. They encouraged many lords and commons throughout Westeros to join the rebellion. Aenys was a weakling, but Aegon's younger son Maegor was a cruel and ruthless leader who served as his Hand of the King. The Targaryens couldn't denounce their incestuous practices by this point because it would mean Aegon's heirs were illegitimate. Maegor brutally crushed the armies of the rebellion whenever they marched against him, but they continued to resist for years. Aenys died after ineffectually ruling for five years, and Maegor seized the throne ahead of Aenys's son Aegon, and continued to persecute the Faith. Maegor himself died without issue after ruling for six years, and was succeeded by Aenys's third son Jaehaerys. A wise and capable negotiator, King Jaehaerys I ended the eleven-year long Faith Militant Uprising by offering the Faith's leadership a compromise: they didn't have to praise the incestuous marriage practices of the Targaryens, they simply had to acknowledge it. The Faith had been defeated militarily, but Jaehaerys's terms were generous (including a complete grant of amnesty so long as the Faith Militant was disbanded), so they accepted the offer.
Ever since, the Faith continued to officially consider brother-sister incest to be an abomination, but treated the Targaryens as exceptional due to their royal status. Meanwhile, the Targaryens continued to wed brother to sister for three hundred years whenever possible, though in some generations in which no daughters were born they did have to marry outside the family. In fact, there were three successive generations of Targaryen kings - Daeron II, Maekar, and Aegon V - who all married outside the family. Aegon V even tried discouraging further incestuous marriages but ultimately capitulated when his son and daughter, Jaehaerys II and Shaera, married without his permission. Jaehaerys II and Shaera would later become parents of the Mad King. Even so, the Targaryens generally tried to marry within the family whenever possible, preferring to seek out cousins of the royal line rather than marry complete strangers. Such was the case when Rhaegar Targaryen married Elia Martell, as House Martell had entered into a marriage alliance with the Targaryens a century before and were thus cousins to the main line. At several points the Targaryens intermarried with House Velaryon, a family in the Crownlands which was one of their original followers who escaped the Doom of Valyria. Given that they had already intermarried with the Velaryons before, each subsequent union was therefore with a cousin of some degree. Moreover, on certain occasions, the Targaryens would marry their nieces and nephews. Rhaenyra Targaryen's second husband was actually her own uncle, Daemon Targaryen, her father's younger brother. As far as is known, a Targaryen never outright tried to marry their own child, the way Craster the wildling did.
Formal laws of Consanguinity do not appear to be as strict in the Seven Kingdoms as they were in the real-life Middle Ages. The exact legal definition of incest in the Middle Ages has a long and complex history, but ultimately settled upon defining any relationship between third cousins or closer as incestuous. In contrast, the common nobility of the Seven Kingdoms appear to have no restriction even on marrying first cousins. Tywin Lannister himself married his own first cousin, Joanna Lannister - her surname was already "Lannister" before they were married, as she was the daughter of a younger brother of Tywin's own father, Tytos Lannister. Nor is this a peculiarity of House Lannister, as members of House Tyrell have also married their first cousins: Mace Tyrell's younger sister Mina married her own first cousin Paxter Redwyne. Mace and Mina's mother Olenna Tyrell, born Olenna Redwyne, is the sister of Paxter's father and thus his paternal aunt. Even House Stark has been known to practice first cousin marriage, in the not too distant past: the parents of Eddard Stark himself were first cousins once removed, Rickard Stark and Lyarra Stark. Lyarra's surname was "Stark" even before she was married. Rickard's grandfather was Willam Stark, and Willam's younger brother Rodrik was Lyarra's father.
- To clarify for those who remain confused: you don't have "cousins" then "first cousins", then "second cousins", etc. "First cousins" are the closest kind of cousin: the child of one of your parent's siblings. Your "first cousin once removed" is the child of your first cousin. The child of your parent's first cousin is your second cousin.
Even Beyond the Wall, incest is considered an abomination. Wildling men prefer to take wives from far-away villages rather than from their own village and clan, and it is considered a great sin to marry relatives. The Old Gods of the Forest, worshiped by both the Free Folk and the Northmen, don't have as many formal rules as the Faith of the Seven, but their religion still maintains a few fundamental social prohibitions, one of which forbids incest. While the wildlings have no knowledge about genetics, they believe (correctly) that inbreeding may result in weak and sickly children. Thus what Craster is doing with his daughter-wives is considered an abomination even by the other wildlings, and not remotely acceptable behavior by their own standards.
Avunculate marriage - between an uncle and a niece or an aunt and a nephew - is considered to be incest in Westeros, and is strictly forbidden. This is a closer degree of kinship than first cousin marriage (an avunculate relationship shares on average one fourth of their DNA, compared to one eighth between first cousins). In real life, avunculate marriage was sometimes allowed with special compensation in medieval Christianity, Judaism, and others. Among the Ancient Greeks, King Leonidas of Sparta was married to Gorgo - his own half-niece, though the Spartans explicitly considered this to not be incest, but marriage to a full niece to be incest (incidentally, Gorgo was played by Lena Headey in the 2006 film adaptation of 300). The Valyrians were known to wed uncle to niece or aunt to nephew if no siblings were available: Maegor forcibly wed his half-niece Rhaena, and Rhaenyra married her uncle Daemon. The Targaryens were also open to aunt-nephew marriage: Daenerys speculates that had her eldest brother Rhaegar's son Aegon lived to rule as Aegon VI, she probably would have been married to him as a political match (and thus, potentially, Daenerys would have no qualms about marrying her own nephew Jon Snow - Rhaegar's secret son by Lyanna Stark - to secure a political alliance).
George R.R. Martin explained that the Targaryens' incestuous marriages are inspired by Ptolemaic Egypt (323-31 BC). Cleopatra herself, last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, was the product of incestuous marriages: her father's parents were brother and sister, and her mother's parents were an uncle and niece (she also nominally married her own under-aged brother). Like the Targaryens, the Ptolemaic dynasty practiced incestuous marriages in an effort to "keep the bloodline pure". Martin said he did this because he was intrigued by the effect heavy inbreeding would produce in the Targaryens: accentuating both their values and their flaws, as genius and madness can be two sides of the same coin.
- "The Targaryens have heavily interbred, like the Ptolemys of Egypt. As any horse or dog breeder can tell you, interbreeding accentuates both flaws and virtues, and pushes a lineage toward the extremes. Also, there's sometimes a fine line between madness and greatness. Daeron I, the boy king who led a war of conquest, and even the saintly Baelor I could also be considered "mad," if seen in a different light. (And I must confess, I love grey characters, and those who can be interpreted in many different ways. Both as a reader and a writer, I want complexity and subtlety in my fiction)."
Real-life incest laws in the Middle Ages
The medieval Catholic Church initially imposed restrictions on a person marrying their relatives to the seventh degree, but later at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 changed this to within four degrees. This does not refer to "seventh cousins" or "fourth cousins". The old Roman method for reckoning degrees of relationship was to count "acts of generation", thus a person is one degree away from their parents, two degrees away from their grandparents, three degrees away from their uncles, and four degrees away from their first cousins. Thus it was forbidden to marry blood relations up to a second cousin once removed (or a first cousin thrice removed), but third cousins could marry. After the barbarian invasions, however, a new complication arose, in that the Germanic system of reckoning blood relatives was different from the Roman system. The Germanic system was based on how many parental generations back two people possessed a common ancestor: siblings share common parents so they are only one degree removed (instead of two degrees as under the Roman method), and first cousins are two degrees removed from each other, as their closest shared relatives are their grandparents (instead of being four degrees away as under Roman law). The problem that arose from this change is that while the method for reckoning degrees of blood relationship had changed, the strict wording of the Church's laws restricting marriage "within seven degrees" was not updated to take into account the fact that the definition of what a "degree" was had changed. As a result, everything up to marriage between sixth cousins was considered forbidden - which was practically impossible to avoid. In the strictest definition of incest god-parents and brothers/sisters-in-law (and their relatives) were also included in the family-tree, forcing those looking for a spouse to look far outside their own social circle. This might have helped forge alliances between early Christian families.
That being said, the Catholic Church was not frequently able or even willing to enforce such overly strict interpretations of the prohibition. It usually only enforced consanguinity laws when it wanted to apply political pressure on a secular lord seeking a marriage, and conversely, would often grant dispensation to a lord seeking to marry his third cousin if he was on good terms with the Church (i.e. gave them generous land donations). By the thirteenth century, however, it was decided to finally update the official Church laws on incest to reflect the fact that they were using the new Germanic method of reckoning blood relatives: thus the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 officially lowered the number of degrees in which marriage is forbidden from seven to four. This does not mean that long-held prohibitions on incest were suddenly relaxed, but rather that the laws and method of reckoning were finally brought closer back to their original alignment, forbidding marriage between what we would call "second cousins". Actually, the new rules in 1215 were slightly more strict in that two persons are related within four Germanic degrees of kinship if they share the same great-great-grandparents, which means that third cousins or closer were forbidden to marry (which was still far less than forbidding marriage between sixth cousins).