Game of Thrones, the notoriously successful book series and adapted TV show, has had its fair share of gruesome deaths. They’re not messing about when they say all men must die. From being burnt alive by dragons to crushing a human skull with one’s bare hands, the show’s bloodlust in the last five seasons and its brutal season finale has left us cringing and anguished. But are these deaths only possible in the realm of fantasy, or are they scientifically plausible?
“George RR Martin has always attempted to root his fantasy world in some kind of reality, so there is stuff in there that would stand up to some scientific exploration,” says Ian Simmons, science communications director at Newcastle's Centre for Life.
Simmons and comedian Helen Keen are exploring the science of Game of Thrones in a specially commissioned show. With Simmons’ help, IFLScience puts the most gruesome deaths in Game of Thrones under a microscope.
For those who can’t remember the many deaths in the show, check out this amazing Washington Post graphic on all 456 deaths from the first four seasons.
Warning: major spoilers ahead...
Viserys’ Golden Crown
Viserys Tagaryen, Daenerys’ cruel older brother, was desperate to sit on the iron throne and be crowned king. He was instead, ironically, crowned with molten gold. Many weren’t sad to see him go, but as gold has a melting point of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s unlikely the campfire could have heated to the sort of temperature needed. If it was a lead/gold alloy, however, Viserys would have met his horrible end as this would melt at lower temperatures.
“Interestingly, I found no historical record of anyone being killed this way, but several people have been killed by having molten gold poured down their throats,” Simmons says. “The most famous being Roman Emperor Valerian the elder, who was captured by the Persian king Shapur I after the Battle of Edessa. Shapur used him as a living footstool for some years, after which he executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat."
To test whether molten gold would burst internal organs, and to see what the cause of death would be, a 2003 study in the Journal of Clinical Pathology poured molten lead into a dead cow's larynx from a slaughterhouse. Researchers saw that it produced a blast of steam that ruptured internal organs. This then burnt deep into the muscle and solidified within 10 seconds.
“So if the steam or shock of the pain didn’t kill you instantly, you’d suffocate from a blocked larynx,” Simmons says.
At the end of season two, we watched Stannis’ men being burnt alive when Tyrion sends them an unmanned ship full of ‘wildfire’ during the Battle of Blackwater Bay. We know wildfire is made by the Alchemists' Guild, and it continues to burn even when put in water. The effect on humans is, safe to say, absolutely horrific.
“The Byzantine Empire had a substance called Greek Fire that was used in a similar way to wildfire,” Simmons tells IFLScience.
‘Greek Fire’ was used in combat by soldiers, who sprayed the substance through siphons on to their enemies, where it eventually ignited. While Greek Fire was used extensively throughout the Byzantine civil wars, no one knows exactly what it was made of.
“The formula was a closely guarded state secret, although it is now thought likely to have involved mineral oil—essentially petrol, mixed with resins to make it stickier. An equivalent modern substance would be napalm,” Simmons explains.
Mother of Wyverns
Image Credit: HBO
There have been a few people torched alive by Deanerys' dragons, and every single incident has been terrifying. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that fire-breathing dragons are entirely fictional, but the biology of the dragons in the TV show is interesting as they have four—not six—limbs.
“There are no six-limbed vertebrates, so that’s in their favor, but strictly speaking that makes them wyverns. Though ‘Mother of Wyverns’ doesn’t sound nearly as good,” Simmons tells IFLScience.
There is a subtle difference between wyverns and dragons in medieval mythology, as wyverns—similar to the dragons in the show—have only two hind legs, while dragons have four. Although, this really doesn’t matter in the Game of Thrones universe.
“Though there are no fire-breathing animals, the bombardier beetle is able to squirt a hot, caustic mix of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone,” Simmons says.
This fascinating little creature uses this defensive mechanism when its threatened. But as pointed out by Simmons, it’s not exactly fire.
“Animals can potentially produce all the components needed: Cows produce huge amounts of flammable methane, and electric eels produce electric charges using modified muscle cells. So if a creature could combine the two processes, they’d have a flammable gas and the means to ignite it with a spark, and could in theory breathe fire,” Simmons explains.
The fact that this hasn’t evolved suggests it might not be that useful, he says. Though I think I could find a few uses for it…
The Purple Wedding
Image Credit: HBO
Weddings tend to be a dangerous affair in Game of Thrones. There was the red wedding, which I’ll never get over, and the long-awaited purple wedding.
Joffrey was brought to his knees when he ingested a rather unpleasant poison—the Strangler. While I doubt any viewer shed a single tear, many were left wondering whether a poison that fast-acting and powerful actually existed.
Deborah Blum, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, thinks that cyanide is the closest match. Like the Strangler, cyanide comes from plants.
“You can get it from apricot or cherry stones. As little as 0.2 g will kill, and it does so quickly, producing most of the symptoms Joffrey exhibits, apart from the bleeding eyes,” Simmons explains.
The glimmer of hope we all had during the fight between the Mountain and Oberyn was quickly crushed, and with it Oberyn’s skull. The way his skull burst on the show would not have been possible, Simmons says, as the pressure would need to be created from inside the cranium, forcing the skull out. But could the Mountain, who is eight feet tall and weighs 420 pounds, still crush a skull with his bare hands?
The answer isn’t clear.
“Yes, That Game of Thrones Exploding Head Thing Could Really Happen (Probably)” a New York Times article states, while the Washington Post says “No, you can’t crush a man’s skull with your bare hands.”
Simmons sits in the ‘no’ camp, and is convinced by the argument put forward by The Washington Post. Tobias Mattei, who studied how well children's bike helmets protect their heads, told The Washington Post: “It would be impossible for even the strongest human to break the skull through compressive forces exerted by any means in any portion of the skull.”
“[The Mountain] would have to weigh over 1,000 pounds to crush Oberyn’s skull by standing on it – so, no crushing a skull with your bare hands this way,” Simmons adds.
As for White Walkers and Shadow Babies?
Image Credit: HBO
“I think you are fairly safe on those counts,” Simmon says.