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This article is about the undead creature. For other uses, see Lich (disambiguation).
A lich from the game The Battle for Wesnoth
Grouping Legendary creature
Sub grouping Undead
Similar creatures Zombie, magician, revenant
Other name(s) Liche

In fantasy fiction, a lich (/ˈlɪ/;[1] cognate to Dutch lijk, German Leiche, Norse lík, and Swedish lik, all meaning "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 and soul to his phylactery and thereby achieve a form of immortality. Liches are depicted as being clearly cadaverous, bodies desiccated or completely skeletal. Liches are often depicted as holding power over hordes of lesser undead creatures, using them as soldiers and servants.

Unlike zombies, which are often depicted as mindless, part of a hivemind or under the control of another, a lich retains revenant-like independent thought and is usually at least as intelligent as it was prior to its transformation. In some works of fiction, liches can be distinguished from other undead by their phylactery, an item of the lich's choosing into which they imbue their soul, giving them immortality until the phylactery is destroyed.[citation needed]

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 1976 Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game booklet Greyhawk, written by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz.[2]

Historical background[edit]

In literature[edit]

Further information: List of liches

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.[citation needed] Gary Gygax, one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, 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.[3][4] The term lich, used as an archaic word for corpse (or body), is commonly used in these stories. H.P. Lovecraft also used the word in "The Thing on the Doorstep" (published 1937) where the narrator refers to the corpse of his friend which was possessed by a sorcerer.[5] Other imagery surrounding demiliches, in particular that of a jeweled skull, is drawn from the early Fritz Leiber story "Thieves' House".[6]

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 Myron Bayne, his maternal great-grandfather. Through investigation and flashbacks, the reader finds that Frayser becomes possessed by Myron Bayne, a distant ancestor, who senses that a lich named Catharine Larue has risen from her grave to kill Frayser. Myron Bayne 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[edit]

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 derived from Old English lic meaning "body" or "corpse".[7] The word has cognates in most other Germanic languages, like Old Norse and Old Frisian lik, Old High German lih, Gothic leik, Dutch lijk, German Leiche, Swedish lik and Danish lig, ultimately being derived from Proto-Germanic *likow.[8]

In popular culture[edit]

In the game Dota 2, Lich is one of the playable heroes.

In the Dungeons & Dragons game (and other works of fantasy fiction that draw upon Dungeons & Dragons for inspiration) a lich is often a spellcaster or someone assisted by a spellcaster who seeks to defy death by magical means.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King features the new continent of Northrend, the realm of the eponymous Lich King and his undead minions.[9]

In the Harry Potter book series, the primary antagonist Voldemort is a dark wizard who separates his soul from his body using magic, and then imbues these soul fragments into various objects, creatures, and people. He is thereafter unable to be killed until said vessels are destroyed, making he and his horcruxes very similar to the concept of a lich and its phylactery.

In the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime and films, the souls of magical girls reside in "soul gems"; unless these gems were destroyed, the girls gained rapid healing factors and had no concept of pain. However, the gems must be kept within 100 meters from the girls, otherwise the girls will fall into unconsciousness, and if the soul gems are left away from the girls for more than 2 days, the girls' bodies will begin to decompose.

In the Adventure Time television series, the main antagonist is an evil, undead being known simply as "The Lich". He describes himself an ancient, cosmic being who is the manifestation of the inevitable death of all things, while Finn is his opposite, a being of life and goodwill. Both are manifestations of Catalyst Comets, 3 colored comets that broke off the Cosmic Comet, the source of life. The Lich is born off the Green Comet while Finn is born of the Blue Comet.

In Ready Player One, a novel by Ernest Cline, main character Parzival, first earned the Copper Key by defeating a lich two games out of three at the arcade game Joust.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Lich" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000
  2. ^ Gygax, Gary (1976). Grewhawk. TSR Rules. p. 35. LICHES: These skeletal monsters are of magical origin, each Lich formerly being a very powerful Magic-User or Magic-User/Cleric in life, and are now alive only by means of great spells and will because of being in some way disturbed. 
  3. ^ "Morrus' D&D / 4th Edition / d20 News - View Single Post - The Lich (Origins)". EN World. 2007-01-29. Retrieved 2009-06-15. 
  4. ^ "Morrus' D&D / 4th Edition / d20 News - View Single Post - Gygaxian Monsters". EN World. 2007-10-05. Retrieved 2009-06-15. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ D&D Monster Origins (L-M).
  7. ^ "Webster Dictionary, 1913, p. 849". Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language. University of Chicago. 1913. Retrieved 2008-10-17. [dead link]
  8. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  9. ^ "Champions of the Lich King". Blizzard Entertainment. Archived from the original on November 24, 2010. Retrieved November 14, 2014.