Spoilers ahead for the season-six premiere of Game of Thrones.
Did Melisandre’s big reveal surprise you, or did you sense this might be coming? Our favorite red priestess has been sprinkling a few clues along the way that she might not be everything she seems – especially if you piece together what’s been on the show, plus what we learn in the books, plus what the actress portraying Melisandre, Carice van Houten, has revealed in stray comments. It all equals one thing – Melony has been using a glamour illusion to change her appearance, possibly through a combination of magic, light, shadow, and desire. Ahead, we’ve compiled all the signs that explain how she pulled it off.
No tattoo. Melisandre was once a slave, “bought and sold, scourged and branded,” as she tells Gendry. (In A Dance with Dragons, she seems to recall being sold at Lot 7, back when she was called Melony – perhaps her birth name?). We see what this slave branding looks like on the other red priestess in Volantis – a tear tattoo – but it’s a mark Melisandre does not share, despite the lack of tattoo-removal facilities in Westeros. Could she have erased it with a glamour? (All signs point to yes.)
The glowing necklace. The first time we see that Melisandre’s choker necklace might be a source of power (or a reflection of power) is when she’s able to resist Maester Cressen’s assassination attempt, and her necklace’s jewel throbs with a red light. That may be a confluence of events – she could be immortal, she could have built up an immunity to poison, and/or her necklace could, a.) act as a magical antidote for anything passing down her throat, or b.) help her hide the immediate, obvious effects of a poison starting to work, such as blood dripping from her nose.
Then again, Melisandre is famously not wearing her choker necklace when she takes a bath in Selyse’s presence:
Was Selyse’s faith or determination to only see what she wished enough to sustain the illusion? Or did she, perhaps, actually see the true Melisandre at that point? This would explain why it was at this moment Melisandre chose to reveal her trickery to someone, and in particular, to a woman whom she does not need to seduce, whom she might want to reassure she’s not a threat when it comes to her husband.
Powders and potions. Mid-bath, Melisandre asks Selyse to hand her a blue vial. If she had used some of it before she started the bath, it’s possible she needed a refill once she had an audience. (Or, perhaps it’s a combination – faith plus potion equals illusion.) Melisandre starts to ruminate on lies and illusions once Selyse is in the room. Selyse wonders if lies should be avoided, and Mel says, “Not always,” before giving us our biggest clue yet: “Most of these powders and potions are lies. Deceptions to make men think they witnessed our Lord’s power. Once they step into his light, they’ll see the lie for what it was – a trick that led them to the truth.”
On the show, Melisandre makes mention of her various tricks – one for bonfires, to send a flaming column “screaming towards the sky,” one to create black smoke “that will make the bravest man piss himself in fear,” and another to drive men wild with lust. In A Dance with Dragons, this is described as “powders to turn fire green or blue or silver, powders to make a flame roar and hiss and leap up higher than a man is tall, powders to make smoke. A smoke for truth, a smoke for lust, a smoke for fear, and the thick black smoke that could kill a man outright.” She’ hides the powders in her sleeves, in hidden pockets: “She checked them carefully as she did every morning to make certain all her powders were in place.”
The other glamours. It’s not as clear on the show as it is in the books, but Melisandre’s gift to Stannis – the flaming sword Lightbringer – is in part a glamour. When she presents it to him, her ruby pulses. A greater, more telling glamour appears in the books when Melisandre does a body swap – making the Lord of Bones, a.k.a. Rattleshirt, appear as Mance Rayder, and vice versa, so that it is the Lord of Bones, not Mance Rayder, who burns at the stake. She helps complete the illusion with her own ruby necklace, a smaller gemstone on Mance’s wrist, and other tools. “So long as he wears the gem, he is bound to me, body and soul,” she says. The ruby itself, however, isn’t enough – it seems to create something more uncertain, making his eye color shift and keeping his face in shadow, so she also has him wear Rattleshirt’s bones to lock the illusion in place. “The bones help,” she says. “The bones remember. The strongest glamors are built of such things. A dead man’s boots, a hank of hair, a bag of fingerbones. With whispered words and prayer, a man’s shadow can be drawn forth from such and draped about another like a cloak.”
The flames. Anyone who has stared into the sun or a fire knows that it can make your vision a bit wonky. Yet Melisandre is constantly directing people to look into the flames (and away from her), especially in moments of doubt. It’s possible that the nature of fire itself – the smoke, the haze – can help her sustain illusions or even blind people to the truth. In A Dance with Dragons, we get a clue about this when it’s noted that those who served her had learned that the fire “must never, ever be allowed to go out.” This can’t be for heat’s sake alone since she likes to brag about how she’s “never” cold, even without furs in a winter climate.
The sacrifices. “A great gift requires a great sacrifice,” Melisandre is fond of saying. This is her excuse for burning people alive to aid Stannis’ cause. But what if this is one of her greatest lies, and the constant burning of infidels is for her own personal gain? Does she need a constant source of sacrifice to replenish her own powers or maintain her beauty? There are those who believe that bathing in blood provides that, so it’s not much of a stretch to think blood sacrifice could do that as well.
Her relationship with her body. Melisandre is very comfortable with her body. She seems to crave people looking at her nude form – after all, she cultivated it for that very purpose. But she doesn’t seem to identify too strongly with it. It’s not as if it’s her, after all. “It’s only flesh,” she tells Selyse. But it’s flesh that gets men to lower their guards, admire her, even persuade them to do what she wants. Stannis, Anguy from the Brotherhood Without Banners, Gendry, and even Jon Snow are seduced to varying degrees. She assumes Davos is tempted, telling him, “You want me.”
Perhaps that’s because all along, she’s been the only one (or one of the only ones) in on the joke – that the woman these men crave doesn’t exist, and her beauty is just another trick to get them to give her what she wants. But glamours only change appearance, not physiology, and the book has hinted that Melisandre might be using something to keep her body in shape well past menopause. In A Dance With Dragons, Melisandre has a vision that seems to make blood trickle down her thigh, “black and smoking” – sounds like a magical form of menstrual blood.
Her age. When Melisandre meets a fellow red priest, Thoros of Myr, she doesn’t speak to him as a peer, but as his superior, even when there is no evidence she outranks him. It’s the kind of authority that comes with age and experience, regardless of position. Actress Carice van Houten has said that the red priestess is “way over 100 years” old, and she told scene partner Oliver Ford Davies that it could be as many as “400 years.” Is Melisandre immortal? It’s possible – there are passages in A Dance With Dragons where she compares herself to “mortal men,” as if she were not, in fact, mortal. She’s been practicing her art for “years beyond count” – to the point where she barely needs to sleep or eat. And she tells Stannis, “I’ve been fighting far longer than you.” Let’s hope she can keep fighting when the White Walkers come.