Lich in his chambers with his cabal

In modern fantasy fiction, a lich (IPA: /ˈlɪtʃ/) (sometimes spelled liche, cognate to German Leiche "corpse") is a type of undead creature, usually formerly a powerful magician or king, who has used evil 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 generally more appealing 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.

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 most likely originates in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game.

Historical background[]

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 Skull-Face novelette and the short story Scarlet Tears) feature undying sorcerers who retain a semblance of life through mystical means, their bodies reduced to shriveled husks which they manage to maintain mobile and active. 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".

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. In fantasy, the lich is an undead creature that was never buried in a grave. This is different from other types of undead creatures, such as vampires and zombies, which were buried and subsequently returned from the dead.

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 jar (which is usually hidden in some vast fortress) is suggestive of the burial practices of Egypt. This would make the lich a very-far-from-its-roots mythologization of Egyptian pharaohs. (For the Ancient Egyptians, the purpose of the mummy was to provide a place for the soul to fly back to; it was free to exist in both the afterlife and the physical world [the latter to commune with its descendants].)

Eastern Slavic legends tell 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 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, possibly marking it as the "truer" origin of the concept. In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter, the villain, Tom Riddle, wanted to extend his life, so he split his soul into several parts, storing them in precious artifacts special to him, creating horcruxes. The horcruxes had to be destroyed before Voldemort himself could actually die. The horcrux is thus similar to a lich's phylactery.

Liches in Dungeons & Dragons[]

In the Dungeons & Dragons game (and other works of fantasy fiction that draw upon D&D 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. They do so to extend their lives in order to study the deepest levels of magic. 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. Since removing one's own soul in order to evade mortality is against the natural order of the universe, and the process involved in becoming a lich is unspeakably evil, they are almost always evil-aligned (Vecna is a canonical example). Rarely, a lich can be good or neutral due to the events driving them to become a lich. They are among the more powerful and dangerous undead, and are frequently served by other undead creatures. A lich can only create one phylactery, which if lost can never be replaced [1].

Liches in Other Media[]

  • In the MMORPG City of Villains, Masterminds can summon three lower pets, two regular pets, and one large pet. The large pet of masterminds with the primary power of Necromancy is called a Lich.
  • In the strategy game Heroes of Might and Magic, they are represented generally as decorated skeletons with staves. They are ranged attackers and have attacks which focus on destroying living creatures. Various heroes, mostly Necromancers, have voluntarily given their life as a human in exchange for permanent "life" as a lich to continue their studies, and to preserve their beauty in death.
  • Liches are also present in the game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, where they appear as near skeletal (but still skinned) powerful undead mages in robes and a helmet with power to summon lesser skeletons and zombies to aid them in defeating the player. The lich Barilzar appears in the previous game, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, as a robed skeleton mage of tremendous power.
  • In the Warcraft lore Liches are powerful beings with the typical characteristics. Most of them are powerful spellcasters being turned into Liches by the Lich King. The second expansion of the online game World of Warcraft is themed around Arthas, who fused his spirit with that of Ner'Zhul, the previous Lich King, by donning Ner'Zhul's helm (essentially the phylactery), becoming a single entity.
  • In Guild Wars, the Lich Lord is a powerful boss who appears in the last few missions of the Nightfall and Prophecies campaigns.
  • In the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG, there is an effect zombie monster named 'Lich Lord'.

See also[]

  • List of fictional liches
  • Baelnorn
  • Koschei
  • Nazgûl
  • Wight
  • Wraith


External links[]