Children are coming – they can forge their own path

July 20, 2013

Cross post with Chronica Minora:


The sigil of House Stark in the TV series Game of Thrones.

The TV series Game of Thrones, and the book world of A Song of Ice and Fire generally, place great importance on heraldry and family. House Stark’s motto (or simply “their words”) is “Winter is coming”, House Lannister’s is “Hear me roar”, House Greyjoy’s is “We do not sow”. They serve to distinguish families from one another and often are a concise statement of what the family’s concerns are: the Starks urge one to be prepared, the Greyjoys show their contempt for farmers and the like, for instance.

The Stark sigil as on A Wiki of Ice and Fire

The Stark sigil as on A Wiki of Ice and Fire

George RR Martin is fascinated by heraldry, perhaps too much so. It works for his series, though, because it builds a complex and realistic world. He’s drawing on medieval Europe here, which had a very complex set of rules governing what could or couldn’t be on a family crest, although the book series doesn’t follow such rules. All families are concerned with heraldry, though, and individuals often have their own crests (or sigils, as they are called; and the ones shown in the TV series do not necessarily match those described in the books). Others might have a crest assigned to them by a more highborn lord, which is probably quite realistic too. There’s a full series on Westerosi families here, but as it’s based on the books be warned that many a spoiler lurks within.

The impending arrival of my younglings has had me dwelling a lot on family. It’s not actually a new interest/fascination. I’ve always taken family seriously, and certainly after it dawned on me some years ago that if I had no sons my particular family line could be kaput – I have no brothers and my sister has no children yet. That worried me in my own head for a while, worried me in a vague sort of way at least. I don’t know why. Families come along in their own time and I certainly don’t feel particularly old.

Brian Boru probably did not look like he did in this 18th century engraving.

Brian Boru probably did not look like he did in this 18th century engraving.

When I was a teenager I became fascinated by family history. I know bits and pieces of my own heritage – one grandfather was an architect, the other built cars and later ran a dock, for instance. Game of Thrones and its obsession with family seems to have reawakened that interest.

Generally speaking, my family seems to be descended from Mathghamhain, either the brother or nephew of Brian Boróimhe (I’ve read both at various times but haven’t made any serious genealogical study). For a youngster like myself, having some sort of tangential connection to a great historical figure such as a high king was, without a shadow of a doubt, cool. Any touristy genealogy stuff seems certain of it, but putting on my medievalist’s hat I tend to look somewhat cynically on such claims now, given that for centuries families across the world have claimed descent from legendary or mythical figures. Still, somewhere along the way was somebody called Mathghamhain (it means “bear”) and I am his descendant. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I like connections to the past, and having some of my own fascinates me; perhaps when I am older or have more time I will conduct a more in-depth study of my own family line.

FamilyCrestThe family crest also intrigued me, and I have no idea how it came about. Strictly speaking, I can’t use it, as I am not the head or heir apparent of the main line. I believe that is some guy in Orleans, presumably descended from one of the many Irish who left the country after the Battle of Kinsale and subsequent Flight of the Earls. The O’Mahony Society has its own crest. I’ve also come across two variations of the family motto, which wouldn’t be uncommon in history as different branches might adopt different stances or crests/mottoes depending on their individual circumstances. The one I came across first translates from Irish as “the burning torch to victory”, though this list of Irish mottoes only lists the other variation, which translates from Latin something like “thus we guard our sacred things”. My Latin is very rusty, though.

Irish heraldry is somewhat complicated by the country’s history, with some coats of arms awarded after conquest by the English and others possibly dating to before that. The system of surrender and regrant, where Irish kings and lords swore fealty to the English crown and were given back their lands under new titles, such as earl, is probably a factor in this but I cannot say for certain. It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost all Irish people are descended from a king, as there were more than 100 across the island at one stage. Plus every Irish family had different septs (branches that held their own lands) so that adds an extra layer of complexity. Some will have Norman heritage (or Cambro-Norman), some will have Scottish, and various other backgrounds too. It’s all relevant or, perhaps more accurately, it’s all as relevant as you want it to be.

Catcrest2 Crest2 CrestSome weeks ago I found myself wondering idly what I would do if I were in the position to create my own family crest and motto (as the Game of Thrones cast do in the video above). It’s possible, through the office of the chief herald, though I understand it costs a small fortune and I can’t see any that have been granted in the past few years so that could be defunct. It’s probably a bit pretentious, though it’s not like I’m trying to forge a dynasty or anything. I suppose it’s the idea of being able to forge one’s own destiny/heritage which caught my attention. What would I want to depict, and what would I want to say? Here’s what I’ve come up with on the right, based variously on the facts that I like cats, have “bear” as a surname, and work in newspapers. It just got me thinking about whether or not the words and sigils passed down through history are still relevant to me directly. Do I want my children to recognise their past and honour it in some vague way, or would I prefer them to start afresh?

The truth is somewhere in between. The overall crest has a lot of historical relevance and is part of their (and mine) heritage. My wife is an O’Leary and her family is of similarly ancient lineage, so our little ones will have that heritage too. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.



June 23, 2007

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On the move

June 15, 2007

Dear reader,

Tinyplanet has packed its bags and its moving to a new domain. Come and visit at

Conflict of interests

May 29, 2007

The Virginian-Pilot has an interesting biog-piece on Marcus Ross, who holds a doctorate in geosciences yet is also a creationist. I like how the spark for his internal debate was the fact he liked dinosaurs while being raised a Christian fundamentalist. His 197-page thesis was described by his supervisor as “impeccable”, yet Ross doesn’t believe a word of it.

Up in smoke

April 19, 2007

AFP have a story of an Australian scientist with an unusual idea to help tackle global warming — ending the practice of cremation.

The guy, Professor Roger Short, is a reproductive biologist at the University of Melbourne.

“What a shame to be cremated when you go up in a big bubble of carbon dioxide,” he says. “Why waste all that carbon dioxide on your death?”

And he even has a suggestion for a ‘greener’ death: be buried under a tree in a cardboard box (as ’tis biodegradable). The body would nourish the plant which would in turn convert evil CO2 into gorgeous, sexy oxygen, keeping us all going that little bit longer.

Not that cremation is a leading cause of climate change (as even the man himself admits, hastily adding that he did not want to prevent people disposing of their bodies according to their beliefs).

But it does raise the issue of how little things can make a difference, whether it be washing clothes at a lower temperature, turning off the lights when you leave a room or being buried under a tree. And that’s something which will always fascinate me: how the most insignificant or run of the mill events can make a huge impact further down the line.

The best exploration of this notion I can think of would be ‘virtual’ history. This is perhaps better known as ‘what if?’ history.

For instance, William H McNeill, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, wrote an intriguing article focusing on disease, “one of the wildcards of history”.

He looked at the siegeof Jerusalem by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. The siege was lifted because a disease swept through the army of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. As Judah was a minor kingdom in the region, poorer and weaker than its neighbours, the Assyrian force moved on. McNeill points out that Sennacherib’s forces had already dominated the tiny kingdom anyway; what was one more city? The larger, wealthier part of David’s kingdom, Israel, had been extinguished some 21 years earlier.

McNeill notes that “common sense” in the region was “that the gods worshipped by different peoples protected their worshippers as best they could. Victory and defeat therefore registered the power of rival deities as well as the strength of merely human armies”. The departure of the Assyrian force was a propaganda victory for Hezekiah and the refomers.

“Thus, according to the Bible (e.g., the Book of Isaiah), God saved his people and destroyed the impious Assyrians by spreading lethal pestilence among them. Such a miraculous deliverance showed that both King Hezekiah and the prophet of Isaiah (whom Hezekiah consulted with) were right to rely on God’s power and protection.

More than that: it proved God’s power over the mightiest ruler of the age. Who then could doubt that the prophets and priests of Judah, who so boldly proclaimed God’s universal power, were telling the truth?”

The result was that a religious reformation the king of Judah, Hezekiah, had supported was able to sink roots. And it meant that when Jerusalem was finally conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, and its inhabitants brought into exile in Babylon, their faith was strong enough to endure. The idea of an omnipotent God was so ingrained in the people that even the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not enough to encourage them to abandon His worship.

The people of Israel had lost their identity following their conquest; “by accepting commonsense views about the limits of divine power, they abandoned the worship of Jahweh, who had failed to protect them”. Not so for the citizens of Jerusalem, who interpreted their defeat as punishment for Judah’s failure to obey God’s commandments as well as they ought. Ultimately, these exiles “reorganised their scriptures to create an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipation from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed temple in Jerusalem”.

So, one little plague outside the walls of a city in a minor kingdom some 2,700 years ago ultimately led to the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What would the world be like without them? Would we have a world full of gods? A world without any?

And now it is time to sleep.