Find out more about the deeper meaning of the house symbols on Game of Thrones, starting with the Starks: their grey & white, their motto, “Winter is Coming,” and their animal, the direwolf.
If the overt plot of Game of Thrones wasn’t hard enough to follow, author George R. R. Martin littered the story with layers of symbolism, usually associated with families or houses. Each family is given a sigil (a sign or symbol that indicates the family), colors, words by which to live, and certain qualities that define them. Within the story, the importance of sigils underlines that in this world, with its highly structured society and its medieval echoes, a person’s birth or family largely determines their fate. On the metaphorical level, Game of Thrones uses the houses to embody certain basic characteristics within human nature—which might exist in us all, but which are separated out and exaggerated in the individual houses. For example: We might say the Lannisters embody selfishness, the Starks strength in adversity, Targaryens inner vitality, the Baratheons anger. One of the deeper intrigues we feel watching the houses battle for dominance is identifying with the families that embody our own values, and wondering which aspects of human nature may finally prevail.
The Starks: Stoicism, Honor, Strength in Adversity
The first family the audience meets is the Starks, the Lords of Winterfell, and arguably the family that tugs at your heartstrings the most. The sigil of the grey wolf against a white background captures the family’s readiness for the hardship of winter and the struggle to stay alive. This struggle is not only against the harsh elements of the North, but also in opposition to their enemies in Westeros. HBO’s representation of the Stark sigil, which makes the grey direwolf appearance akin to armor, represents the Stark family’s willingness to use physical force. Persecuted and beaten down over the course of the story, the northern Starks represent tough stoicism, strength of will, and the determination to persevere against all adversity.
The Starks: Motto
Their motto, “Winter is Coming,” is one of the most memorable on the show, mostly because it’s said an absurd amount of times. And yes, it is a literal warning that the years-long summer is ending and winter will once again fall upon Westeros. When winter comes, the White Walkers may return, a terrifying reality the Starks feel they must always be ready for. There are also metaphorical meanings behind the Stark’s motto. George R. R. Martin himself has explained that we must expect dark periods of our lives—even if things may seem good now, we should always be prepared for fortunes to turn against us. On the Stark family level, “Winter is coming” foreshadows all the hardships the Stark family will face.
These words show the Stark family’s closeness to the elements. Their name Stark derives from their location: the definition of “stark” is hard and barren, like the northern climate. Given the danger and hostility of their environment, the Northerners have to stick together to brave the winter, while Southerners are able to play political games and stay at odds with one another because of their temperate climate. The North is not only geographically but also politically isolated from the games of the South. They speak plainly and truthfully.
A passage from the book emphasizes that all of the houses’ family mottos -“boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words. Not for the first time, she reflected on what a strange people these northerners were.” (3 Catelyn 1.15)
It’s significant that they don’t use their motto to brag about themselves, but to remind themselves and others to look up from our smaller infighting and remember that there is an even bigger threat, bigger danger a bigger fight. The northerners’ determination to face the brutal reality of life shows that they are made of different stuff with a totally different philosophy than the other houses. They have been shaped by a more difficult environment,, and this hardship defines them.
The Starks: Colors
The colors of the Starks, grey, and white, are also symbolic of their geographic and political locations.
Grey is a neutral color, a transition between black and white. It is stable, calm, quiet, and reserved, never the center of attention. It represents compromise and control. The Stark family embodies this color through their level-headedness. And the gloominess of grey illustrates the depressing fate of the family.
White is the color of new beginnings, of purity and innocence. Most obviously, white is the color of snow, a product of the impending winter. And of course, white makes us think of Jon Snow. The Starks embody the duality of the color white—as it is pure and innocent it is also cold and isolated.
The Starks: Animals
On the sigil, the colors are reflected as a grey direwolf on a white field. The Starks are symbolized by the direwolf—like wolves, they are ferocious, persevering, with loyalty and integrity, and they do best in a pack. Over the seasons, they struggle to survive when separated, and—like the direwolves—become almost extinct.
In the first episode, Ned Stark and his children find a litter of direwolf pups, and the children each take one. Each pup’s characteristics and name reflects its owner—and the pup’s fate symbolizes what will come of each human Stark, almost as if each direwolf is the soul of a Stark child externalized. Meanwhile, the stag antler in the dead body of the parent wolf foreshadows Ned Stark’s death, which will be brought on by his accepting the hand of the King position for Robert Baratheon—a house represented by the stag.
Sansa names her direwolf “Lady,” as Sansa wished to be a Lady and marry Joffrey. In the books, Lady is described as “the prettiest, the most gentle and trusting,” of the pups. Arya names her direwolf Nymeria after the warrior Princess who led her people across the Narrow Sea and settled in Dorne. It’s a name that captures Arya’s wild warrior spirit. After Nymeria attacks Joffrey to protect Arya, the girl sends her direwolf into the wild to escape being put down. In the books, Nymeria forms a wolf pack that runs free, just as Arya flees to live on the run and grow stronger in exile. Nymeria being lost also symbolizes that Arya is uncertain of her path. Meanwhile, Joffrey senselessly demands that Lady be put down for Nymeria’s crime. Lady’s death represents Sansa’s loss of innocence—after the brutality she experiences living in King’s Landing, her gentle and trusting nature is gone.
Robb and Grey Wind are inseparable as Grey Wind fights alongside Robb on the battlefield.. At the Red Wedding, the Freys separate Robb and Grey Wind out of fear that they’ll fight back together. They’re both decapitated and Grey Wind’s head is sewn on Robb’s body.
Bran has yet to name his direwolf when he goes into a coma after Jaime Lannister pushes him from a tower. The lack of a name suggests his wolf is an even more connected extension of himself—since he’s a warg, he can also enter his wolf and control it. When Bran wakes from his coma, he names his direwolf Summer. Bran himself is referred to as “the sweet summer child” by Nan—Born in summer, he’s never known what life in winter is like. And on a deeper level, Bran may turn out to be the force that will defeat Winter, and bring the return of summer once again. In Season 6, Summer (the direwolf) sacrifices himself to save Bran, Meera, and Hodor from the Wights, who are the markers of winter. Summer’s death signals that winter has arrived.
Rickon’s direwolf, Shaggydog, is aptly named, because, unlike his siblings, Rickon is never taught proper grooming and education. He was supposed to learn to be a Bannerman for his brothers but was instead brought up by a wildling, Osha. The youngest Stark, Rickon has come of age only knowing this brutal age of fighting with the Baratheons and Lannisters, and his wild, fighting wolf alter ego reflects an unhinged, untamed spirit. Osha and Rickon seek refuge with the Umbers, who then betray them and killed Shaggydog. Likewise, the Umbers are allied with Ramsay Bolton, who later kills Rickon at the Battle of the Bastards.
At first the family only sees five direwolves, one for each legitimate child of Ned Stark. But soon after, Jon Snow adopts an albino direwolf. Theon notes that it’s the runt of the litter, just as Snow starts life at a disadvantage, apart from his legitimate siblings. Jon decides to call him Ghost. Some believe that when you die you become a ghost—After Jon dies and is resurrected in Season 6, Ghost is the first one to see Jon come back to life, and some even speculate that Ghost’s presence was a key part of Jon’s resurrection. Like his name “Snow,” the wolf is pure white, and Jon is also called the White Wolf. Now that Jon is the King in the North, the Stark banner is reversed, as is customary when a bastard takes up his house banner. The field becomes grey and the direwolf becomes white. Because Jon’s direwolf pup was the only white one and the rest were grey, the switch signals that though Jon may become the leader, King of the North, he is still not fully a Stark—especially now with his proven Targaryen blood, he remains apart from his Stark sigils, the white wolf to the others’ grey.