Beyond The Wall

The Story Behind Jon Snow's Cave Paintings Unlock a Game of Thrones Secret

game of thrones cave paintings season 7
HBO

Though Dothraki scythes, a dragon sniper, and a very ambitious Jaime Lannister get the showiest moments in "The Spoils of War," the fourth episode of Game of Thrones Season 7 also snuck in a quick history lesson in the form of some very detailed -- and conveniently located -- cave paintings. Jon, about to mine the caverns of Dragonstone, shows Daenerys the etches he discovered deep in the rocky crevices, amid deposits of jet-black dragonglass. The drawings were created by the Children of the Forest, the mythical, native race of Westeros, and tell the story of how they teamed up with the First Men to defeat the White Walkers.

"They fought together, against their common enemy," Jon tells Dany of the Children and Men. "Despite their differences, despite their suspicions... together. We need to do the same if we're going to survive."

It's a great moment for Jon and Dany, who are starting to see eye-to-eye, right as tensions -- and passions -- are at a boiling point. But the drawings also signify the cyclical history of Westeros, and trigger memories of important White Walker iconography and the Children of the Forest who died off to protect Bran. Here's a refresher on who the children were, their significance in the war to come, and what those swirling etchings might mean.

game of thrones season 6 children of the forest
HBO

Who were the children of the forest?

The children were a magical race of tree-loving greenseers  and the original inhabitants of Westeros. Known for their earthy brown skin and cat-like eyes, they lived in peace amid nature and the giants until the arrival of the First Men, who are said to have come over from Essos. The First Men foraged their new land, chopping down the red-leaved weirwood trees that were sacred to the children. This provoked a war between the two races that lasted for thousands of years.

game of thrones children of forest white walker creation
HBO

The children created the White Walkers -- and then came to regret it

According to the show (though not yet confirmed in George R. R. Martin's books), the children of the forest created the White Walkers by inserting dragonglass into the hearts of captured First Men. As Leaf, the last surviving child, tells Bran in season 6, it was an act of desperation meant to protect them from the men who threatened their lives and land. "We were at war. We were being slaughtered," Leaf explained. "Our sacred trees cut down. We needed to defend ourselves."

We don't know exactly what went wrong, or how the children lost control of the White Walkers, but they eventually, and ironically, became an even greater threat than the First Men. The children and men created a pact that divided their land and promised a peaceful coexistence. But eventually the White Walkers descended from wherever they were being kept to wage a war against their creators.

game of thrones cave paintings white walkers
HBO

The paintings depict an event known as "The Long Night"

The Long Night began with the arrival of the White Walkers, who brought with them unending winter. It was said to last for generations, and killed many of the First Men and children in the process. Legends vary about how, exactly, the Long Night ended; in the North, there are stories about the "last hero," a man who united with the children and defeated the walkers. In Essos, the story differs a little, but still tells of a single hero with a legendary sword who ended the war. They refer to him as Azor Ahai, and believe that he'll be reborn to end a similar event.

The carvings Jon shows Dany depict the union of the children and First Men, who together created the Wall – the men (and giants) built it, the children laced it with protection spells. The Wall still serves as a protector against the White Walkers – although it doesn't seem long for the world.

game of thrones spirals
HBO

What's with all of the spirals?

The first paintings Jon shows Dany appear look like swirls and spirals, some of them perhaps cosmic in origin, but others – as creator David Benioff explained after the episode – are meant to evoke the patterns the White Walkers arrange their victims in. We see an example of this in the first few minutes of the very first episode, when the Nights Watch rangers happen upon dismembered Wildling bodies arranged in a circle.

Benioff explained that the patterns didn't originate with the Walkers, but with their creators: "These are patterns that have mystical significance for the children of the forest. We're not sure exactly what they signify, but spiral patterns are important in a lot of different cultures in our world, and it makes sense that they would be in this world as well."

In our world, the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers that approximate a logarithmic spiral, appears constantly and unexpectedly in nature, like in sunflower heads, the sprouts of a pineapple, and in pine cone bracts. Many ancient civilizations -- from the Mayans to the Celts -- depicted spirals in their primitive art. Galaxies, hurricanes, seashells, fingerprints; spirals are coded into our universe.

It's hard to say if spirals will ever mean anything specific or significant in what's left of Game of Thrones, or if they're only meant to draw a connection between our physical world and that of Westeros. But that Benioff chose to emphasize their significance means we'll probably, at the very least, see some more elaborate White Walker body art by the time the show is over – full Fibonacci style.

game of thrones jon snow daenerys cave
HBO

History is repeating itself

Of course, the real reason to show the paintings, outside of just drawing Jon and Dany closer, is to remind us that -- much like a spiral -- the history of Westeros is cyclical, and that it repeats in ways both obvious and incidental. As the threat from the north comes bearing down, the art is a precursor to the best-case scenario for all. But the question remains: Can Dany, like the Children of the Forest and the First men before her, put aside differences to unite Westeros against a common enemy (which could even mean allying with the Lannisters) or will her impatience and mania repeat the more recent woes of man – a mad ruler with a proclivity for fire sport. Perhaps the paintings are for the next generation to heed.

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.