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Illuminations in the Shadow: on the corruptions of Asshai and the Shadow Lands

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Greetings all,

I come to you with what I believe to be a novel new hypothesis that has the potential to bring  some light to  the Shadow.  Many ideas have been postulated to explain the corruption and apparent toxicity of the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai, many of which are magical in nature and composed of the purest speculation.

This idea that this post encompasses became illuminated upon listening once again to the History of Westeros podcast on Asshai, wherein Aziz quotes the World of Ice and Fire’s passage on the River Ash:


The ships bring casks of freshwater too. The waters of the Ash glisten black beneath the noonday sun and glimmer with a pale green phosphorescence by night, and such fish as swim in the river are blind and twisted, so deformed and hideous to look upon that only fools and shadowbinders will eat of their flesh.

I’ve read this line in the book many times, and I have listened to this podcast a few times before.  This time however, brought light to the subject.  Nowhere else in any of the books is a word even vaguely similar to phosphorescence used. 

Bring light, light bring, Lightbringer: Phosphorus.

I propose that the essence of the corruption of the Shadow was brought about by a hyper abundance of phosphorus. 

First and foremost, we must address the etymology of the word phosphorus.  The word was coined in late 17th century with the discovery of the element: from Greek phōsphoros, from phōs ‘light’ + -phoros ‘-bringing.’  Given the erstwhile emphasis placed on the previous importance of something called Lightbringer and the prophesized return and future importance of said something, it can’t be a coincidence that nearly all of the unique corruption observed in the Shadow can be explained by an element whose name literally translates to Lightbringer.

Little and less is known for certain of the Shadowlands and her people, but once one has an idea where to look, there are logical conclusions which can be gleaned from those tidbits which are available.  The obvious place to start in our attempts to bring light to the Shadow is with that which we have the most experience: her people.  While it is common knowledge that shadowbinders wear masks, it is heavily implied that all native Asshai’i cover their faces at all times, as alluded to in this line:



[…]even the dour and frightening Shadow Men, who covered their arms and legs and chests with tattoos and hid their faces behind masks.


Where it is implied that even the common men from Asshai who are little more than traders follow this practice most commonly associated with the shadowbinders.  (While Melisandre appears to observers as not wearing a mask, it is commonly accepted that her ‘mask’ is a glamour). 

Could this peculiar practice of an entire people choosing to hide their face when in public be related to phosphorus?  Indeed; not only is it possible, it is probable.  Should there be a sufficient quantity of phosphorus present in the Shadow so as to be toxic, it would manifest in the Asshai’i with what was known in Victorian England as “phossy jaw”.  This was a disease that manifested in the people who labored in matchstick factories who were exposed to toxic levels of phosphorus through physical contact and breathing fumes.  The early stages of this disease were tooth pain, which led to tooth loss, then later to the bones of the face and skull dying, rotting and falling out, to leave exposed bone that glowed greenish white when viewed in the dark.  This certainly sounds like the kind of horror we could expect from the Shadow:


Some of the statues were so lovely they took her breath away, others so misshapen and terrible that Dany could scarcely bear to look at them. Those, Ser Jorah said, had likely come from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai.

If one was of the Asshai’i, it would likely be considered polite among peers to not show their face in public, and prudent to not show your deformities to outlanders.

Of course these symptoms can still manifest in the world today, but phosphorus poisoning is now well understood and controls are in place to prevent exposure.  Asshai really needs to update their MSDSs it would seem.

Long term exposure to phosphorus also has demonstrable effects on fertility, which is commensurate with the lack of children to be found in Asshai, and supports the long standing theory that the Asshai’i can’t reproduce.  I must admit that my research of the potential deleterious effects of phosphorus on reproduction yielded some contradictory results, particularly in mammals.  There was, however, a consistent loss in the potency and quantity of sperm in males, a decreased level of successful fertilization in females and increased mortality among infants.  All of the studies I could find tended to be extremely short term, one or two generations, however; imitating the type of effect one could expect to experience from an accidental overdose of fertilizer.  It doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to extend these results over the course of 8000 years to lead to a nearly complete inability for animals (to include the human animal) to reproduce naturally in a place utterly saturated with phosphorus.

Thus far, phosphorus can explain the unique physiological aberrations of the Asshai’i: a lack of fecundity and an erstwhile inexplicable motivation to cover their faces.

In addition to the circumstantial evidence provided by the Asshai’i, we have the direct evidence provided by the impetus for this hypothesis: the River Ash.  The river is said to glow a pale green at night.  It is well known that solid or liquid white phosphorus tends to glow with this same pale green when exposed to oxygen.  In the real world, however, this effect is impermanent.  It is plausible to assume that an effect which would prove fleeting in the real world could potentially be made far longer lasting through the assistance of the very real presence of the magic found in the World of Ice and Fire. 

In addition to the glow emitted by liquid phosphorus itself, we cannot ignore the second and third order effects that would be caused by the presence of so much phosphorus in the water around Asshai.  If the Ash were so saturated with phosphorus that it glows, this would result in a state of hypereutrophy beyond anything that a fisheries biologist like me could even begin to imagine.  In eutrophic waters one can find the conditions that are needed to support a sufficiently high quantity of dinoflagellates, which are the microorganisms responsible for the glowing tides in many tropical areas of the real world.   Here in Florida, an unusually vivid display is often taken as a sign of artificial hypereutrophy thanks to an over abundance of fertilizer seepage, particularly (you guessed it!) phosphorus.

Phosphorus can also explain the curious qualities of the River Ash.

An over abundance of phosphorus in the water table would also have a tremendously deleterious effect on the plants growing in the Shadow.  Phosphorus poisoning on plants has the effect of harming or killing the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi that inhabit plant roots, easing the uptake of nutrients by the plants, in particular iron and manganese.  The inability of the plants to uptake these chemicals leads to chlorosis: a loss of color from a plants leaves that typically results in yellowing, but can be so extreme as to result in cream colored or almost white leaves.  It is reasonable to assume that ghost grass is a plant that is somehow able to not only survive, but indeed thrive, in a situation where it is severely afflicted with chlorosis.  As an aside, chlorosis can also be caused by a lack of light.  Two plus two equals ghost grass?

Phosphorus can even explain ghost grass.

And now, we must don our tinfoil as we walk through the valley of the Shadow of Stygai.

A discussion of Asshai cannot be made without consideration to the strange black stone from which it is constructed:


Travelers tell us that the city is built entirely of black stone: halls, hovels, temples, palaces, streets, walls, bazaars, all. Some say as well that the stone of Asshai has a greasy, unpleasant feel to it, that it seems to drink the light, dimming tapers and torches and hearth fires alike.

The most common plausible explanation put forth for this unusual is the vitrification of the stone.  Vitrification is caused by exposing stone to extreme heat, causing it to somewhat melt, permanently altering and strengthening the stone.  It is almost certain that at some point in the past, half of the red comet struck a second moon and the pieces fell to the Earth (thanks to Phosphorus mea…. I mean Lucifer Means Lightbringer for that juicy nugget of goodness).  LmL further hypothesized that the moon destroyed was the fire moon, leaving the ice moon in the sky.  What better material to have in abundance in the fire moon than white phosphorus?  It is plausible to assume that the majority of this celestial effluent would have struck in the shadow lands, causing the phosphorescent waste and ruin we know today; the extreme heat of which could have caused the melted and horrific effects seen in the structure of Asshai.  White phosphorus burns at about 5000*F/2760*C.  Granite melts at about 2300*F/1250*C. All silicates will melt before granite.  There may be stones with higher melting temperatures than granite, but I could not find them.  While there’s no direct evidence to support this hypothesis, it is certainly plausible and fits loosely within the apparent celestial astronomy of Ice and Fire.

And of course, all of this is before we even begin to try to squeeze magic into this scenario.  Magic is likely present and essential to explain the last part of this mystery, the part my hypothesis cannot explain: the Shadow itself.  At this point, anything I present would be nothing but a guess, so I shall abstain from doing so.  While phosphorus may not be the final explanation for the mysteries of the Shadow, it is likely a component that is present and having a real effect that would be measurable to modern science; an effect that could plausibly and reasonably explain the horrific “fallout” effect that we see in the heart of the old Great Empire of the Dawn.

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