In Game of Thrones S02 E03, "What is Dead May Never Die", the Lord of the Iron Islands and head of the House Greyjoy, Balon Greyjoy and his son Theon Greyjoy say the following words in the castle.

The dead may never die.

When Balon says this, Theon puts his fist on his heart and repeats the same.

These words are repeated by Theon during his baptism too and the priest replies

But rises again harder and stronger.

What is the meaning of these words? Is there a hidden meaning to these words, besides just being a religious slogan?


3 Answers 3


It is more than just religious words. The ironborn go through a ritual when they come of age where they drown themselves, only to be resuscitated afterwards.

It was a bleak, cold morning, and the sea was as leaden as the sky. The first three men had offered their lives to the Drowned God fearlessly, but the fourth was weak in faith and began to struggle as his lungs cried out for air. Standing waist-deep in the surf, Aeron seized the naked boy by the shoulders and pushed his head back down as he tried to snatch a breath. "Have courage," he said. "We came from the sea, and to the sea we must return. Open your mouth and drink deep of god's blessing. Fill your lungs with water, that you may die and be reborn. It does no good to fight."

Either the boy could not hear him with his head beneath the waves, or else his faith had utterly deserted him. He began to kick and thrash so wildly that Aeron had to call for help. Four of his drowned men waded out to seize the wretch and hold him underwater. "Lord God who drowned for us," the priest prayed, in a voice as deep as the sea, "let Emmond your servant be reborn from the sea, as you were. Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel."

Finally, it was done. No more air was bubbling from his mouth, and all the strength had gone out of his limbs. Facedown in the shallow sea floated Emmond, pale and cold and peaceful.


He growled a brusque command, and his drowned men seized the dead boy by his arms and legs to carry him above the tideline. The priest followed, naked but for a sealskin clout that covered his private parts. Goosefleshed and dripping, he splashed back onto land, across cold wet sand and sea-scoured pebbles. One of his drowned men handed him a robe of heavy roughspun dyed in mottled greens and blues and greys, the colors of the sea and the Drowned God. Aeron donned the robe and pulled his hair free. Black and wet, that hair; no blade had touched it since the sea had raised him up. It draped his shoulders like a ragged, ropy cloak, and fell down past his waist. Aeron wove strands of seaweed through it, and through his tangled, uncut beard.

His drowned men formed a circle around the dead boy, praying. Norjen worked his arms whilst Rus knelt astride him, pumping on his chest, but all moved aside for Aeron. He pried apart the boy's cold lips with his fingers and gave Emmond the kiss of life, and again, and again, until the sea came gushing from his mouth. The boy began to cough and spit, and his eyes blinked open, full of fear.

Another one returned. It was a sign of the Drowned God's favor, men said. Every other priest lost a man from time to time, even Tarle the Thrice-Drowned, who had once been thought so holy that he was picked to crown a king. But never Aeron Greyjoy. He was the Damphair, who had seen the god's own watery halls and returned to tell of it. "Rise," he told the sputtering boy as he slapped him on his naked back. "You have drowned and been returned to us. What is dead can never die."
The Prophet, a Feast for Crows

The ironborn are a folk that almost lives on the sea. As such, it is important to not be afraid of drowning. This ritual basically does that. They drown themselves, so that they won't fear drowning again.

What is dead may never die

Basically, if you already died once (drowned), you can't die again. Them surviving the drowning makes them harder and stronger. Or at least, that is their belief.

So the addendum

but rises again, harder, stronger.

is simply part of the same motto.

  • Do any of the women also go through this ritual? Perhaps, at least, Theon's sister Asha?
    – Charles
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 18:53
  • 3
    @Charles I don't know. That sounds like an interesting question, maybe ask it separately ;)
    – JAD
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 19:31
  • V for Vendetta uses a similar ideology, where Evey needs to "die" (let go of everything) because it will make her stronger to achieve her (and V's) goal. Arya is also put in a similar position with the Faceless Men.
    – Flater
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 7:49
  • @Flater Good comparison. I would say though that on the Iron Islands the practice is more aimed at creating a detachment from life, making warriors fearless (they are already dead after all), while the Faceless Men aim for a detachment from identity (if you want to be anyone, you don't want to be yourself too). I don't remember 100% the goal of the dying in V for Vendetta. Probably closer to the former.
    – JAD
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 7:53
  • @JAD The main purpose was to lose the fear of dying, because they were opposing an oppressive government that takes no issue with making people disappear or put them in in a cell to rot. Evey passes the test when she is indifferent to being executed. But the end goal is the same: sacrifice the self for the collective goal (Ironborn glory/standing up to authoritarian fascists/act on the Many Faced God's will)
    – Flater
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 8:01

It's part of their prayer used in Baptism and also in choosing king:

During the blessing ceremony, the following exchange occurs as the priest pours holy sea water over the adherent's head: TheonsBaptism

Drowned Man: "Let [name] your servant be born again from the sea, as you were. Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel."

Response: "What is dead may never die."

Drowned Man: "What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stonger.

Another type of drowning ceremony, used to anoint Kings of the Iron Islands, involves the Drowned Man actually drowning someone, holding them under the water until they stop breathing. They are then dragged ashore, where they begin to breathe again. The prayer is extended in this ceremony:

Drowned Man: Let [name] your servant be born again from the sea, as you were. Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel. Listen to the waves, listen to the God. He is speaking to us, and he says we shall have no king but [name]. Let the sea wash your follies and your vanities away. Let the old [name] drown. Let his lungs fill with sea water, let the fish eat the scales off his eyes. What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger. What is dead may never die!

Gathered: What is dead may never die


Because after they service drowning , they come out more stronger and harder. More of fearless to death.

This also goes well with what happen to there God himself which gave him that name:

Within this belief system, the Drowned God is locked in an eternal struggle against the Storm God. The Drowned God's halls are located beneath the ocean, while the Storm God lives in a castle in the sky with his thunderclouds. The Storm God is constantly trying to send storms to dash ironborn ships against rocks.

Resurrection figures prominently in the religion, in the form of being revived from drowning. The Drowned God himself is said to have drowned in the sea, for the sake of the ironborn, but returned to life "harder and stronger". Drowning is also employed as a method of sacrificing enemies to the Drowned God.

Due to their belief, the ironborn do not fear drowning in the sea. "Godly" ironborn - that is, fearless raiders - who drown are believed to be taken to the Drowned God's watery halls to feast on fish and be tended by mermaids for eternity. Thus, whenever a man dies, ironborn say that the Drowned God is in need of a strong oarsman.

  • The actual drowning is also done regularly, see the quote in my answer.
    – JAD
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 17:28
  • 1
    This, of course, reads as “Let opening bracket name of the baptised closing bracket comma your servant…”
    – Evpok
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 20:09

What is Dead May Never Die is a double entendre and can be interpreted 2 ways.

  1. If something is already dead, then it can not die again. There is nothing to fear! Or, as you said in this case, relating more directly to the Iron Born and a kind of ritual involving a near-death expirience to give one a right of passage, --what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

  2. However, in Game of Thrones' metaphysics, death is not the end of anything, but a transformation, as the work provides a spectrum of 'living-dead' entities, as a way to explore or contest what identity and death really is.


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