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How Game of Thrones Interprets the 'Science' of Reanimating the Dead

The season finale of Game of Thrones featured a welcome dose of mad science—here's a brief look at the true history of the quest to revive the dead that may have inspired it.
Image: Peter Isotalo.

[A few spoilers follow, so heads up.]

Game of Thrones has never been shy about killing its darlings, and Sunday's season finale was no exception. Let's just say that many of the show's most beloved actors will not be collecting any more checks next season.

But one character that everyone took for dead may be getting a second wind. The finale included a scene with Gregor Clegane, the Mountain that Crushes Heads, conked out on an operating table. He's half-dead from manticore venom, but Qyburn, the show's burgeoning mad scientist character, insists there is still a chance to save him though “the process may change him…somewhat.”


Oh great. The show seems to be insinuating that we're getting an undead Mountain, as if the living one wasn't terrifying enough. But what's even more tantalizing is whatever “process” Qyburn kickstarts in the laboratory. Given how much George R. R. Martin draws on real events for inspiration—the books are heavily influenced by England's War of the Roses—so I'm hoping we'll get some historically-inspired necromancy injected into the show. A world filled with shadow babies and ice zombies could use a little dose of science, after all, even of the mad variety.

Along those lines, I have some speculative guesses as to what Qyburn might be doing, based on the most unhinged physicians of history. I haven't read this far into A Song of Ice and Fire, so my speculations are limited to what we saw on the show. Here goes:

Before the scene cuts away, we see Qyburn begin bloodletting the Mountain with a massive syringe. Forget Westerosi lore—in our own history, bloodletting was the most common surgical procedure performed by physicians for 2,000 years.

The most dominant reasoning behind the practice was that diseases were caused either by an overabundance of blood, or an unstable balance of elements in the body. Hippocrates pioneered the theory that the four humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile—must be in constant balance with each other for good health. Though it sounds ridiculous to modern ears, the competing theory was that illnesses were caused by rogue demons, so it was at least a step up from that.


Considering medicine in the Game of Thrones universe seems to be analogous to Medieval healing, it wouldn't be too surprising if Qyburn subscribes to some variation of the humors theory. Or perhaps, he's bleeding the Mountain to dilute the amount of venom in the bloodstream, which is ill-advised, but has historical precedent.

There's also the outside chance he needs the blood for some other nefarious purpose, like injecting it into Ser Pounce. In Martin's universe, anything can happen, including mind-melding the Mountain with a cat by way of a blood transfusion.

Indeed, there is historical precedent for that too. The blood of Roman gladiators was prescribed to epileptics and was thought to transfer strength to the ailing. The Danish anatomist Caspar Bartholin even claimed that an epileptic girl who drank the blood of a cat acquired feline abilities. So I'm not ruling out that the Mountain 2.0 might be some kind of transmogrified man-beast combo (shudder).

However, it's seems more likely that his body will somehow be reanimated in all its strongman glory. Why waste a perfectly good eight-foot tall slab of muscle, after all?

Humans have never been huge fans of mortality, and so it's no surprise that hare-brained attempts to resurrect the dead are sprinkled liberally though history. The eighth century polymath Jābir ibn Hayyān claimed to have created synthetic life in his laboratory, but he wasn't very forthcoming about the details. Indeed, most historical necromancers basically had overactive imaginations, and their incantations and rituals failed to get hearts beating in dead chests.


But the landscape changed entirely in eighteenth century: the age of the Frankenstein experiment. Galvanists like Giovanni Aldini began to notice that shocking dead things make them appear temporarily alive. In 1803, he ran electrical currents through the body of murderer George Forster, fresh off the gallows. His audience saw the dead man's eyes open, his fist pump, and his leg kick. Suddenly, resurrection seemed like a real possibility.

Illustration of a galvanized corpse. Image: Cherry blossm tree.

Aldini boasted that he had fully revived dead animals, and he was not the only one making such claims. A textbook mad scientist named Carl August Weinhold announced that he had replaced the spinal cords of kittens with charged pile batteries, and that these cyborg cats had beating hearts and full mobility.

Much though it would be great to see Game of Thrones take a Frankenstein turn, it's unclear how Qyburn would generate an electrical charge. Would he hook the Mountain up to a conductor and wait for a thunderstorm to roll in? That seems a little too over the top even for Game of Thrones. But in a world without electrodes and generators, there aren't a lot of other galvanizing options out there.

Regardless of what the Mountain morphs into next season, I hope it cements Qyburn as the ethically dubious scientist on the show, because Westeros really needs one. What with the rogue dragons and the flame-throwing tree kids, there is already way too much enchantment on the loose. It would be great to see the show make the argument that science can be every bit as revelatory—and every bit as corrupt—as magic.