Lich: Wikis


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A depiction of a lich from the game The Battle for Wesnoth.

In modern fantasy fiction, a lich (pronounced /ˈlɪtʃ/) (sometimes spelled liche, cognate to German Leiche "corpse") is a type of undead creature. Often such a creature is the result of a transformation, as a powerful magician or king striving for eternal life uses spells or rituals to bind his intellect to his animated corpse and thereby achieve a perverse form of immortality. Liches are depicted as being clearly cadaverous (as opposed to the healthier forms of vampires), their bodies desiccated or even completely skeletal. Liches are often depicted as holding power over hordes of lesser undead creatures, using them as their soldiers and servants, and thus are a threat both individually and as leaders of belligerent forces.

A lich should not be confused with a zombie. While both are reanimated corpses, the difference lies in their intellect. Whereas a zombie is incapable of distinguishing friend from foe (only living from undead), a lich is usually as intelligent as a regular human.

Various works of fantasy fiction, such as Clark Ashton Smith's "Empire of the Necromancers", had used lich as a general term for any corpse, animated or inanimate, before the term's specific use in fantasy role-playing games. The more recent use of the term lich for a specific type of undead creature originates from the 1977 Monster Manual for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game by Gary Gygax.


Historical background

In literature

The lich developed from monsters found in earlier classic sword and sorcery fiction, which is filled with powerful sorcerers who use their magic to triumph over death. Many of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories feature powerful wizards whose magic enables them to return from the dead. Several stories by Robert E. Howard, such as the novella Skull-Face and the short story Scarlet Tears, feature undying sorcerers who retain a semblance of life through mystical means, their bodies reduced to shriveled husks with which they manage to maintain inhuman mobility and active thought—Thulsa Doom, for example. Gary Gygax, one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, has stated that he based the description of a lich included in the game on the short story The Sword of the Sorcerer by Gardner Fox.[1][2] The term "lich", used as an archaic word for corpse (or body), is commonly used in these stories. Other imagery surrounding demiliches, in particular that of a jeweled skull, is drawn from the early Fritz Leiber story "Thieves' House".

An earlier mention of the lich can be found in 'The Death of Halpin Frayser,' a short story by Ambrose Bierce. Halpin Frayser is found dead with a poem written in the style of Lord Byron. Through investigation and flashbacks, the reader finds that Frayser becomes possessed by Lord Byron, a distant ancestor, who senses that a lich named Catharine Larue has risen from her grave to kill Frayser. Lord Byron takes possession in order to finish one last poem before Frayser's death. At the end of the story, the men investigating the murder conclude that Catharine Larue was Frayser's heartbroken mother, who had died some time before the murder. Bierce describes liches thus,

"For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether."

In religion and mythology

In Roman Catholicism and the Church of England, the word "lychgate" refers to a covered area at the entrance to the cemetery where the casket awaits the clergy before proceeding into the cemetery for proper burial, "lych" being a word meaning body or corpse derived from Old English.[3]

The underlying idea of eluding death by means of arcane study and black magic can be traced to Middle Eastern folklore, and the method of achieving immortality by placing one's soul in a phylactery, usually hidden in some vast fortress, is suggestive of the burial practices of Egypt.

Eastern Slavic mythology includes stories of a powerful dark wizard or a demon, Koschei the Deathless, who evades death by having his fiery soul placed in the eye of a magical needle. The needle is inside an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare, which is locked in an iron chest placed at the roots of a great oak tree, which is in a hole in the ground on the magical island of Buyan. Koschei can be killed only by breaking the magical needle, which is much like the phylactery of a lich. This image is consistent with the modern interpretation of the lich.

Liches in Dungeons & Dragons

In the Dungeons & Dragons game (and other works of fantasy fiction that draw upon Dungeons & Dragons for inspiration), a lich is a spellcaster who seeks to defy death by magical means. They are necromancers who are unsatisfied with the level of power that they currently have, wish for longer lives, and seek to unburden themselves from the necessities of bodily functions (such as eating and sleeping) so that they might dedicate every moment of their existence to the attainment of knowledge and power. Liches convert themselves into skeletal undead creatures by means of black magic and necromancy, storing their souls in magical receptacles called phylacteries. With their souls bound to material focuses, they can never truly die. If its body is destroyed, a lich can simply regenerate or find a new one. According to the Dungeons & Dragons mythos, the only way truly to destroy a lich is first to destroy its phylactery, thereby removing its anchor to the material world, and then to destroy its physical form.

See also


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