There is no doubt that Melisandre, a.k.a. The Red Woman, is incredibly powerful. I mean, she can birth killer shadow babies and see visions of the future in fire, which is pretty damned impressive for a woman who was once a peasant slave. There is another, less mystical, way in which she may also be powerful…she might just qualify as a cult leader. Her religion in and of itself doesn’t seem any more a cult than the rest of the religions in Game of Thrones, but as advisor to Stannis Baratheon, Melisandre runs things in a manner that heavily mirrors that of a cult.
So what makes her sect a cult and her the cult leader? According to an article in Psychology Today there are seven key steps that go into creating a cult and Melisandre follows all of them in one form or another while with Stannis Baratheon:
Step One: Begin by creating your own reality. You do this by keeping your members away from outsiders. An isolated farm in the middle of Idaho is good but if such a retreat isn’t available, impose a form of self-censorship. If it’s not of the cult, it’s of the devil.
At the beginning of Game of Thrones Stannis’ main location is an island called Dragonstone. Really can’t get any more isolated than that. Unless you then keep yourself mostly inside the walls of a fortress with just you, your family, and your advisors like Stannis. I gotta admit it was Stannis more than Melisandre who took the isolating everyone step, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t take full advantage. Within the walls of the castle she easily creates her own reality, tailoring it to the concept that Stannis not only is the rightful king, but will sit on the Iron Throne soon…with her help that is. There are also many instances in which Melisandre states and/or implies that her god is the one true god, all others are false gods, those who don’t follow The Lord of Light are doomed, and she’s the only one there with a direct line to the deity so what she says is, is what must be. The clearest example is, after getting beaten horribly at Blackwater Bay, she tells Stannis that he lost because he listened to someone else and didn’t bring her along for the battle.
Step Two: Set the leader and his/her inner circle up as the only link to paradise…only they hold the keys to the kingdom.
Melisandre is especially clever here; she knows her surroundings and how to play them to her advantage. Rather than declare herself the leader straight out she declares Stannis the leader and reborn messiah (Azor Ahai) of her religion, but makes herself the prophet who knows what to do. This twist makes her in charge via puppet regime. Stannis is the one and true king, he’s the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, he’s the messiah, but only by following and listening to her can these things come to be. She’s the only one who knows how to make it happen because she’s the only one with the ability to communicate with The Lord of Light.
Step Three: Remember to make increasing demands. Start small but keep it going and eventually you’ll have your followers standing in line to turn over all their worldly possessions.
I have to believe there were smaller requests before the show given Melisandre, Stannis, and the rest are already burning nonbelievers at the stake when we’re first introduced to them. Still, that remains only the beginning of the demands Melisandre makes of Stannis and his people. Despite being a stern and faithful man she gets him to turn from his other advisors, including his closest advisor and friend (if he had friends), Davos Seaworth, and his family. She convinces him to commit adultery – creating the shadow baby to kill his baby brother, Renly – despite him being a man who actually took his marriage vows seriously. She has him take and use a young man for blood magic (there were also plans to kill the boy, but Davos saves him), leave Dragonstone for the North, and ultimately burn his own beloved daughter alive at the stake.
Step Four: Keep turning out stories about the greatness of the leader. The more unbelievable the more they will be believed.
While Stannis is de facto leader the incredible stories of greatness are pretty much all about Melisandre. She’s the one that can survive poisoning, birth killer shadow babies, use her god to snuff out Stannis’ enemies, and see the future…That being said, these stories actually happen to be true. Rarely happens in real life, but this is a fantasy show so…yeah… Either way these stories are told to the masses and no one ever seems to question them no matter how insane that might seem, which I believe is mostly the point of this step.
Step Five: Remember to use your converts to bring in still more converts. This has the double advantage of picking up new disciples and (even if that doesn’t always work) the mere act of proselytizing will further cement the commitment of those already in the fold.
Melisandre started off by converting Stannis’ wife, Selyse, first. From there she worked on Stannis and, after that, there was likely a pretty easy trickle-down effect to Stannis’ followers. That isn’t anywhere near the end of her attempts to spread the word of her god though. As Stannis battles to become king she piggybacks her own crusade to convert everyone in Westros into following The Lord of Light. Using Stannis, setting him up as the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, she intends to make her god the only god people are allowed to pray to. With each new convert and won battle the conviction in her religion within and beyond those who already believe is strengthened.
Step Six: Keep everybody busy. This doesn’t allow time for potentially critical thought. Let the minds of the masses wander and who knows, they might put two and two together. For this reason, long sermons – the longer the better – and interminable work shifts are essential. And when you aren’t haranguing them and they aren’t being kept busy…make sure they’re at least singing.
It isn’t exactly a difficult task for Melisandre to keep all those around her busy given there are easily half a dozen wars breaking out at any given time. With the wars keeping people both physically and strategically at work the emotional and other aspects of busy-ness are a relative piece of cake. Whenever possible she’s seen proselytizing about Stannis, The Lord of Light, how the night is dark and full of terrors, or having public burnings of either sacrifices or those considered blasphemers. …The few that make the time to doubt or see through what she’s doing are usually dispatched of swiftly and brutally, thus keeping any other potential doubters quietly in line.
Step Seven: Keep your flock fixated on the carrot. The payoff is just around the corner and only they will be the ones paid off. The clouds will part and they will be raptured up and then, boy-oh-boy, won’t all those non-believers be sorry.
With just about every “suggestion” Melisandre makes to Stannis she mentions how he’s going to be sitting on the Iron Throne. If he just does this next thing – whether it be sleep with her or condemn his daughter to die – he will be that much closer to being the king he’s destined to become. And, of course, once he’s king he can get the vengeance he so deserves on the treasonous traitors that refused to bend the knee to him.
There is also one other aspect that, I believe, makes Melisandre a cult leader…she doesn’t seem to be a true believer. Not in Stannis anyway. While I think she absolutely believes in The Lord of Light and his powers, when things start going bad with Stannis’ crusade for kingship, she cuts and runs. By the time things begin getting rocky after they reach The Wall she already seems to have her eye on a new potential king: Jon Snow. Now whether it’s because she sees something new in the flames or just decides she read her visions wrong the first time, I don’t know, but by the end of the last season she seems ready to abandon any belief she has in Stannis being the reborn messiah and one true king of Westerns in favor of better prospects. What she might do next, whether she’ll have any sort of crisis of faith over the Stannis debacle or just carry on in search of another king to create a puppet regime with, remains to be seen, but whatever it is will likely show her a true believer or clever cult leader.
(Note: This article was based on the television show, Game of Thrones, not the books the show is based on…I’ve not yet read the books.)