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The Lich (Origins)


First Post
Psion said:
How appropriate: thread necromancy of a thread about necromancy.

In addition to the above story, another was Empire of Necromancers.

Like any true Lich, a thread like this should never stay dead.

It always interests me to learn about the backstory on some of the creatures we've learned to expect in our games. But makes me wonder based on how writer's of those era's functioned, whether it was collective unconsciousness that spurred the creation, whether they shared their results (or appropriated them), or whether this was based on something even older.

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mmadsen said:
In The Empire of the Necromancers though, the "liches" are simple reanimated corpses, used for slave labor, not undead necromancers:

Not entirely true. If memory serves, the necromancers reanimate the residents of the ancient kingdoms, but then the rogue undead consults with an ancient master of some sort about secrets he needs to turn against the necromancers.

T. Foster

First Post
I'm fairly certain the D&D lich comes directly from the Gardner Fox story "The Sword of the Sorcerer," part of the collection Kothar - Barbarian Swordsman (Belmont Books, 1969). The creature in that story not only has the exact characteristics of the D&D lich (physical description, fear aura, paralysis ability, magic ability way beyond typical PC level (average 18th in an era where PCs typically topped out around 12th level), not-necessarily-evil alignment (listed in both the neutral and chaos columns)), it's also described/referred to specifically as "lich" repeatedly in the text:
Gardner Fox said:
[Kothar] found himself staring at a flat slab of stone that rested on marble amphoras. It was a crypt, this place in hollow rock. And that dead thing wrapped in funereal garments, brown with age, was what lay buried in it. he had blundered into a tomb.

His lips twisted in a grin. Let the dead shelter him who sought life in this sanctuary. He was about to turn and close the iron door when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.

The withered brown body on the form - he could make out bits of whitened bone and grisly fragments of flesh and hair protruding from the rotted cloth - was moving. It sighed, as if it breathed immeasurable distances away. Its chest lifted and fell in a slow pulsing.

Dwallka of the War Hammer! What was this thing?

The corpse turned its head so that it could look at Kothar out of its empty eye-sockets. The barbarian felt the touch of eyes, even though there were no eyes to see or be seen. He stiffened, his flesh crawled, his long fingers took a firmer grip on his sword-haft.

Even as he stared, the lich sat up.

"You came at last, Kothar. I had almost given up hope for you."

The young giant opened his mouth to speak, and could not. The cadaver swung what was left of its legs over the side of the stone slab and stepped down onto the hard dirt floor. A peculiar sound rose upward from the bones of its throat.

A lassitude came upon Kothar. He began to sway back and forth, as if tired in every muscle. Hai! He was weak too. So weak he could not stand up. The lich was doing this to him in some hellish manner he did not understand.


"Who are you?" Kothar growled.

"my name was Afgorkon, long and long ago."

Kothar scowled. Afgorkon? Surely he had heard Queen Elfa speak of Afgorkon who had been a mighty magician fifty thousand years ago. He tried to think, but could not, being held in thrall of the black, empty eye-holes of the dead thing standing before him, bent and brown and old.

If it could have smiled, the lich might have quirked its lips.

"In the dayws when this land was known as Yarth, I was a sorcerer renowned from frozen Thuum in the north to tropical Azynyssa as the equator. My spells could level a city or raise up a tempest on the sea..."
And so on. While many of the sources cited previously (REH and CAS in particular) are undoubtedly also correct, insofar as they were strong influences upon Fox, I have no doubt that this book was the specific proximate source of the D&D "lich" as depicted in OD&D Supplement I.


First Post
frankthedm said:
"Sticks", by Karl Edward Wagner, first published in the March 1974 issue of Whispers refers to an undead creature as a lich, later revealed to be a magic user.

Good story. Really recommend it.
It was reprinted in an anthology from Whispers as well.

Liches, as we know them, most likely originated in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, where Smith, Howard, and Lovecraft all made their home. :)

I wish that I still had my collection. While there were some real dogs there were also some real gems.

The Auld Grump


First Post
Kinda related... my boyfriend and I were talking about liches during a car ride one night near my hometown, and we passed through the town of Litchfield. Knowing that "lich" is an archaic word for "corpse" made us laugh, because Litchfield is a very affluent area and they probably wouldn't appreciate knowing their town name basically means "graveyard".


First Post
Would anyone consider Dorian Gray a lich?

BTW, there's a Lichfield in the UK which is definitely rimes with "itch". Don't think many people know what it means though.


Ssyleia said:
The German word is "leiche" (pronounce Lye-shee) --> that goes pretty well along with "lich", especially if you pronounce it with a northern German accent. Since the English language is influenced heavily by both Germanic and Latin sources my guess is that "corpse", deriving from Latin "corpus" sometimes during the late medieval displaced the Germanic lich...
English isn't just heavily influenced by Germanic sources--it is a West Germanic language, who's origins lie mostly on the coastline of what today are the low countries. Frisian is it's closest "sister language" but both Dutch and German are close genetic relatives as well. The reason lich and leiche are so similar is because they are cognates--the same word from the same source with different influences on them since the separation of those who went on to become German speakers and those who went on to become English speakers.

If you look at texts for Old High German, Old Low Franconian and Old English, the similarities are even more pronounced and striking.

Anyway, English also had a fairly long-running and influential contact with Northern Germanic languages, via the Danelaw and other formerly Viking settlements in Britain itself, and then from Norman French from--well, from the Normans. There's actually very little direct Latin influence, but since Norman French is of course a descendent of local vulgar Latin in northern Gaul, it had a pretty significant influence on the development of English--mostly in the enrichment of the vocabulary. English is somewhat unique--or at least unusual--in that while it accosted and took a lot of this French-based vocabulary and Anglicized it, it also tended to keep it's "native" vocabulary for the most part too, leading English to have one of the richest and most diverse vocabularies of any language in general use today.

However, this particular situation is not one where that happened; the native word lic-->lich (compare with Dutch lijk, German Leiche and Swedish lik did not really survive, and the Latin based one, corpus-->corpse did.

However, thanks to Clark Ashton Smith, who was an extremely well-read and very erudite writer with a command of the English language equalled by very, very few, the word entered the vocabulary of Weird Tales pulp fiction, which is likely where Gygax first encountered it, and it has taken on a second wind in fantasy at least.


JonnyReb said:
Ok, I hate to admit it because I don't recall the fellows name, but years ago I worked in a gaming store in Monterey CA and there was a fellow who claimed that he was one of the first DnDers, a personal friend of EGG, now in CA because he was in the Coast Guard.

We were skeptical of his claim, but he was never pushy about it, nor boastful, and as time went by we came to feel he was telling the truth. ( His name *was* in the group credits in the 1st ed PHB for whatever that meant)

Anyhow, his one claim to DnD "fame" was that he invented the Lich. Where or how he came up with the name he never said, but he was running an adventure and needed a powerful magic using undead for the final encounter. He did a little mythological research and came up with the lich.

Supposedly, when they were getting ready to copyright the very first DnD game EGG offered this fellow $25 for the "rights" to "his" Lich, which he accepted.

How true is the story? I've always more or less believed it, mostly because I believed him. I mean, if someone was going to fake being one of the original DnDers, don't you think they'd come up with someting more grandiose then one monster? Besides, if he was telling the truth about that, then all his stories about the early days of DnD and TSR were true, and there were some doosies!

Anyway, that's how I've heard the story, for what it's worth....
Nope, completely fabricated. Clark Ashton Smith used the word lich to refer to corpses, especially those of wizards who used their magic to return from the dead. Gygax no doubt was very familiar with CAS's work, and given the direct correspondence between how CAS used the word and how the earliest D&D lich looked, it's almost guaranteed that that's the nearest proximate source for the lich as a monster in D&D.


Brilbadr said:
The first lich that springs to mind for me, and has the most impact on how i represent them in roleplaying, the Dweomer-liche from Tolkien. This is of course the Nazgul. I always took this to mean Magic-corpse. Following the english roots in my fav homestudy dictionary. Where did Tolkien get it from? Probably his mother, where his deep love of old-english, germanic and norse lore was instilled. His stories he described as containing threads of half-remembered fairytales told at his mother's knee. He later went on to study them and took up the Chair of Old English lit... i.e. became THE authority. But you all know this, I just like to idolise the old (deceased) chap.
Except Tolkein didn't use the word lich, he used the word laik. The "dweomer-liche" you refer to is actually "dwimmerlaik" and Eowyn uses it to describe the Witch-king.
"Begone, foul dimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace".

A cold voice answered "Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind left naked to the Lidless Eye".

A sword rang as it was drawn. "Do what you will, but I will hinder it, if I may".

"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!".

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. "But no living man am I! You look apon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him".
After reading that, it makes one despair of ever writing anything meaningful in the fantasy field ever again--or at least of writing anything that's Tolkien derivative. That's probably one of my favorite passages of the entire Lord of the Rings, so I assiduously avoid even approaching it at all, since there's no way I could ever hope to top it.

Although no doubt the execution of the concept in D&D owes a fair bit to the Nazgul in general.
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Well... **ahem** shoulda read the whole thread before replying. Looks like the Clark Ashton Smith angle has already been pretty thoroughly covered. :eek:


Melan said:
Actually, the first appearance of a fantasy "lich" predates Leiber: Thulsa Doom in Howard's Kull stories was suspiciously like one (the following quote is translated back from the Hungarian):
"The man's face was a bare, wax-white deaths head, pale blue flames glowering in his eye sockets.
'Thulsa Doom' - cried Ka-nu."

This was my guess too.

IIRC Kull and his pict buddy uncover the sorcerer who is trying to take over Kull's empire using serpent people dopplegangers to replace Kull. The pict buddy stabs the sorcerer through the ribs with his bronze sword but both are struck motionless by cold and fear as he reveals his skeletal reality, flames burning from within his eyesockets. The sorcerer walks out calmly at that point, unconcerned about the sword through his chest. He boasts about his ancientness, mastery of magics, and promises that even though Kull killed his serpent man double the sorcerer will be back to take over the empire some other way later.
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First Post
T. Foster said:
I'm fairly certain the D&D lich comes directly from the Gardner Fox story "The Sword of the Sorcerer," part of the collection Kothar - Barbarian Swordsman (Belmont Books, 1969).

DING DING! I think you have nailed it.

It seems clear that most of the weird fiction authors were reading the works of their contemporaries and picking up and reusing some archaic and obscure words. I suspect a thorough survey of the pulps would find plenty more uses of "lich" than the already impressive number of examples cited in this thread.

But Fox's use seems to be the one that comes very close to lich in the D&D sense. A great find!


First Post
Garnfellow said:
DING DING! I think you have nailed it.

It seems clear that most of the weird fiction authors were reading the works of their contemporaries and picking up and reusing some archaic and obscure words. I suspect a thorough survey of the pulps would find plenty more uses of "lich" than the already impressive number of examples cited in this thread.

But Fox's use seems to be the one that comes very close to lich in the D&D sense. A great find!

Did Fox's have the phylactery aspect of the lich as well, or is that from another source (Koschei, for example)?

T. Foster

First Post
Did Fox's have the phylactery aspect of the lich as well, or is that from another source (Koschei, for example)?
The phylactery isn't mentioned in the part of the story I was quoting from yesterday (the character's first appearance) but I didn't re-read the entire story, and the character reappears in a couple later stories as well, so it might be in there somewhere (I don't recall it specifically, though). However, note that the phylactery also isn't mentioned anywhere in the original OD&D Supplement I monster description (quoted by Geoffrey on p. 1 of this thread) -- it's first mentioned in the AD&D MM1 write-up, by which time Gygax may well have been deliberately trying to incorporate additional elements outside of Fox so as to broaden the monster into a more generic/universal "undead sorcerer" type.


First Post
TheAuldGrump said:
It was reprinted in an anthology from Whispers as well.
Tales of the Cthulhu mythos also has a reprint.

D. Carson did a nice Illo based on the sticks story.


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DragonLancer said:
I assume that Lich comes from Lichgate, which is the entrance to a churchyard.
I'm pretty sure its the other way round actually. Lich is olde English for body, so the Lichgate became over time the name for the entrance to the graveyard through which the body was carried.



I am pretty sure that concept of lich was influenced by Koshchei Bessmertnii, althought it is probably not the actual origin of the concept. The name quite litterally means "Skeleton the Immortal" and he is a very powerful sorcerer, who hides his life in a well hidden and guarded inanimate object.

Prince Atom

First Post
I'm not sure how much of Koschei made it through to the D&D lich, however. Yes, he is an undying skeleton-sorcerer who keeps his "death" in some other thing than his body; but he has problems with women, specifically, he can't help loving them. Quite often a canny woman will use his infatuation to get the better of him and exploit his power for his own ends. GURPS Russia has some interesting info on this old Russian legend, including the observation that it was often Koschei who needed rescuing, not the women. Koschei also features in GURPS Cabal.

A recent Demonomicon article in Dragon was about a demon, Kostchtchie, who shares a similar name but is a demon, not an undead (my wife thought that the name was a total rip-off, but she's hardly unbiased when it comes to Russian folk tales).

I think that the modern concept of Lich has some roots in Koschie, but it's been expanded and made more generic. Vecna certainly has fed back into the idea.

As far as the old pulp weird tales go, perhaps the authors were looking for a more challenging sorcerer for their thewmongers, since Conan et al. were certainly capable of cleaving your run-of-the-mill living sorcerer in twain without even breaking a sweat. But this thing's already dead! It's going to take at least two whacks with your sword.


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